Recycling plant offers second chance for ex-offenders

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A major recycling operation on the city's near east side is serving as a way back into the workforce for hundreds who have done time for crime.

In a sprawling warehouse on the near east side, hundreds of workers tear apart old electronic equipment. Computer monitors, printers, and other electronic throwaways are gathered here for recycling.

Gregg Keesling is founder and president of the operation called RecycleForce, located at 1125 E. Brookside Avenue. The operation employs about 300 men and women a year. 

"Our mission is to help men and women who've been released from prison and they are still under supervision, to make the transition from that supervision, into mainstream society," said Keesling.

Those referred here spend four to six months on the job and many are required to keep up their constant schedule of monitoring by the criminal justice system. But even though their past is complicated, Gregg Keesling says the answer to keep them out of jail is simple.

"People come in here and the ultimate goal is for somebody else to hire them," says Keesling. "So now they've developed their work muscle. They have less oversight by the criminal justice system. They exhibited a work history and then we move them out."

Keesling says each year, at least 5,000 former inmates return to Marion County, and without a job, many will return to prison.

He says RecycleForce has dramatically reduced the number of those going back to a life of crime.

"We have 60% of the individuals who are transitioning onto unsubsidized employment. We do have 25% that are going back to prison but that's half of what Marion County is having now," he said.

Zandra Baker has worked was hired four years ago, and is now the director of safety. She says the message is clear. 

"Some of these guys have never worked before. This is their first job. You have to want it in your heart if you want to do good and not go back."

Charles Neal, also known as "Preach," has worked here four years and is now warehouse manager. "It makes a difference in the society because we have to learn how to invest in human beings. It's not as costly to employ an individual then to incarcerate them."

It takes about $2.5 million in grant money to keep the operation going, and operators say it is a struggle to maintain that support. But they insist this approach is proving to be a less costlier solution than allowing those to return to a life of crime.

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