RecycleForce Can’t Lose*

*No, really. It can’t. Because if the nonprofit goes away, Marion County also loses its best hope for keeping ex-cons in work and off the street. But with grant money evaporating and commodities prices falling, the recycling company could be headed for the scrap heap.

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To outsiders, RecycleForce looks like a success.

The near-eastside electronics-recycling company garners raves and grabs headlines for hiring ex-cons fresh from the clink to dismantle TVs and computers, making it the feel-good place to get rid of your old tech junk—a service still pretty rare in Indianapolis. Since serial entrepreneur Gregg Keesling founded the nonprofit back in 2003, revenue from reselling the copper, gold, and silver hidden inside those obsolete Samsungs and Sonys—along with some sweet public grants and private contracts—has allowed Keesling to provide another type of service for the city: a one-of-a-kind stopgap for the growing recidivism problem.

More than half of the prisoners released in Marion County wind up back behind bars within three years, according to a 2013 report commissioned by the City-County Council. The biggest predictor of whether they will return to crime? Employment. And sometimes not even that is enough.

Let Lionel “Moose” Muse demonstrate. RecycleForce’s motto is “work is therapy,” and every morning on workdays, five times a week, the former drug dealers and murderers, robbers and rapists who make up the RecycleForce staff gather for “circle time,” a chance to talk out their troubles before they hit the warehouse floor. Moose spent much of the last decade in and out of prison for dealing dope. On a humid day in September, he stood in front of 40 of his co-workers—their work shirts already clinging to them like their long rap sheets, some of which spanned as many as 40 felony counts—to confess just how close he’d come to jumping back into the game.

His wife, a daycare worker at a church, hadn’t received her paycheck for two weeks, due to some snafu. The monthly budget was running in the red, and, with a mortgage and four children, Moose  confessed to his peers that he was “getting ready to make a move, bro.” But the night before, he pulled into his driveway to a surprise. On his doorstep sat a plastic bag containing a plaque that read “Be still, and know that I am God”—and three $100 bills.

Charles Neal, called “Preach” for speaking with the cadence of a Southern minister and baptizing fellow prisoners, piped up: “Psalm 46:10!”

Moose continued. “Who pulls up in the driveway and finds a plastic bag with three crispy boys in it?” He was astounded, and he had to share the story—to give hope to anyone in the room who might be struggling with the same temptations. “Seventy-two hours after a man gets out of prison, if he hasn’t touched resources, or if he doesn’t have a family network waiting for him … he’s going to falter,” he said.

That 72-hour window is where RecycleForce comes in. It takes a referral from someone like a probation officer or a felony-court judge for the men (and a few women) to get a job with Keesling. A steady paycheck, a chance to make an honest living. Access to social services and workforce training. That is, until last year. That’s when the RecycleForce model—the program Mayor Greg Ballard and Director of Public Safety Troy Riggs are relying on to help keep a high-risk population off the street—began to fall apart.

 

RecycleForce2Perhaps it’s fitting that 57-year-old Keesling started RecycleForce amid ruins and rubble. In 2005, Cliff Rubenstein, the landlord of a warehouse and office park, came to him and a friend, Tom Gray, for help. A 100,000-square-foot basement in the park had become a dumping ground for unwanted electronics, and the TVs, computers, fax machines, and phones needed to go. Gray did some research. “My God, there’s a lot of money in here,” he told Keesling, tearing apart some of the detritus onsite one day. “Look at all this gold.” The two became urban prospectors, mining $300,000 in commodities from that basement. Keesling also found a direction—with a nice chunk of change—for his nonprofit.

Another venture Keesling had at the time wasn’t going so well. Called Keys to Work, the for-profit staffing agency connected welfare recipients with clerical, cleaning, and light-industrial temp work while they found their financial footing. Over five years, Keys to Work had accumulated $7 million in government contracts. But with federal funding shifting, the program was struggling. In a last-ditch effort to bail out Keys, Keesling started a nonprofit, hiring all kinds of disadvantaged workers—homeless people to ex-felons—to produce another company’s concept for easy-to-assemble furniture sold by Target. But when the company pulled an about-face on Keesling and outsourced its labor to China, he was stuck owing $254,000—a debt he’s still paying off today. With Keys stumbling, Keesling was removed from the payroll, and, inspired by his basement discovery, he changed the focus of his nonprofit.

Keesling’s idea worked like this: RecycleForce, as the endeavor would later be called, would serve as training wheels for life on the straight-and-narrow. Newly released prisoners would work full-time for $7.50 an hour and get access to social services like job training and health-insurance enrollment. After four months, Keesling would help each worker “graduate” to employment elsewhere. Then, a new arrival from the prison system would take his or her place.

By the end of the first year, the venture had processed 600,000 pounds of e-waste. Five years later, the operation became the first e-waste recycling facility of its kind in the state to be registered with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. The public began to take notice as RecycleForce hosted Saturday dropoff events in places like Broad Ripple and Garfield parks, and in tony schools like Park Tudor. In 2008, a report released by the Indiana Department of Correction seemed to support Keesling’s social-services component: The study claimed that ex-felons who found work immediately after release from prison and earned at least $5,000 within the first six months of their release were more than 40 percent less likely to return to crime.

Over the years, those sorts of numbers helped Keesling rope in the dough he needed to supplement the proceeds from the gold and silver he was reaping from the electronics and eventually increase the annual operating budget to $6 million. The Department of Labor awarded RecycleForce a $5.6 million grant, for instance, in exchange for participating in a study that would compare Keesling’s ex-offenders with a control group. The nonprofit has also received money from both The Glick Fund and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

In 2014, RecycleForce commissioned an intensive study to understand whether it was achieving its mission. The research showed that RecycleForce workers had a three-year recidivism rate of 32 percent—nearly 15 percent lower than the overall rate for offenders in Marion County. What’s more, the longer RecycleForce could keep its workers employed,  either onsite or with outside jobs, the more likely they were to stay out of prison.

Success stories like Justin McGhee became the poster children for what RecycleForce could do. After serving time on a federal drug conviction and unable to find work upon his release in 2012, McGhee might have returned to his lucrative job dealing cocaine if he hadn’t been referred to RecycleForce. A couple of days before he connected with Keesling, McGhee had broken down and called his old supplier. “Young Yellow,” said the supplier, using the ex-con’s nickname, “come and see me.” But McGhee didn’t, and after he had been on the job just two months at RecycleForce, the organization assisted in finding him a full-time paralegal position with the Marion County Public Defender Agency. He studied for the vocation after his RecycleForce shifts.

The easy drug money was tempting, says McGhee, “but I got a job at RecycleForce.”

 

For Keesling, young men like McGhee—tempted by drugs, convinced they have no alternatives—have come to represent both the man he used to be and the son he couldn’t save.

Keesling grew up in Winchester, about 80 miles northeast of Indianapolis. For part of his youth, he played a small role in a marijuana-selling operation. While in high school, Keesling would make off with his father’s station wagon at night, drive to Florida, load the vehicle to the brim with pot, and make $5 for every pound he brought back. He netted a profit each trip—all while his father thought he was staying at a friend’s house. “Every single day of my life from the time I was 16 until I was at least 25 when I got married—every single day for nine or 10 years, I did something related to selling or moving marijuana,” he says.

He dropped out of Earlham College in 1979 and moved to Jamaica, where he found more high times and, eventually, his wife, Jannett. Then Keesling went legit in the early 1980s. Thanks to a Reagan-era program known as the Caribbean Basin Initiative, designed to prevent the region from falling to communism with American aid and investment, Keesling scored a cash infusion from U.S.-backed loans equivalent to $3.5 million Jamaican dollars. Flush, he and two Jamaican partners built a 7-acre, 45-room Summerset Village resort in Negril, Jamaica. He hosted Boz Scaggs and the occasional undercover FBI or DEA agent, and says he even got high with Bill Murray.

A hippie at heart, founder Gregg Keesling's office has a psychedelic vibe.
A hippie at heart, founder Gregg Keesling’s office has a psychedelic vibe.

Photo by Tony Valainis

By the mid-1990s, the resort business burned Keesling out. In 1996, then a father of three, he left Jamaica behind. When he reemerged in Indy, Keesling began raking in millions in grants, private funding, and federal contracts for do-gooder projects. That culminated in RecycleForce, which won the support and plaudits of pols and probation officers alike.

But it wasn’t until the 2009 suicide of his son, Chancellor, that the ex-cons began to remind Keesling of his own child—the connection renewed his commitment to them. Chancellor, an Iraq War vet, was unable to shake the depression that plagued him during his second tour of duty and shot himself. In the wake of the loss, however, Keesling found renewed purpose. He successfully lobbied President Obama to reverse longstanding U.S. policy that prevented presidents from recognizing families of soldiers who committed suicide in combat theaters. And he came to see the work he had done on behalf of those in uniform and ex-cons who had once worn a different type of uniform as intertwined. To Keesling, they are both too often victims of unforgiving systems.

“It occurred to me that if I was only a re-entry advocate, it would be hard to make this case,” Keesling says. “Since I’ve lost a son in the war, I have a unique perch to tie these together. Most people struggle to see them as the same group. We have an obligation to our soldiers—a big obligation. But we have a common-sense need to help those coming home from prison, if nothing else to help keep our cities safer, and to help their children. Just because one group is sympathetic—it would be hard for any American to go, ‘Screw those soldiers.’
But it’s very easy to say, ‘Screw those ex-offenders. They made their own mistakes.’ But the reality is, it’s in our interest, perhaps even more so from a societal standpoint, to help those coming out of prison.” After Chancellor’s death, RecycleForce employees christened their sprawling warehouse the “Chancellor Keesling Recycling and Re-Entry Facility.”

Keesling had a meeting scheduled with Mayor Ballard, himself a veteran, on the morning of Chancellor’s suicide. Keesling told Ballard what happened; Ballard spoke at Chancellor’s funeral. Over time, Keesling shared with the mayor his vision for ex-cons navigating a return to society. Ballard says Keesling “genuinely cares for the people he serves without judging them for their past.”

Ballard has made lowering the recidivism rate a priority of his administration, creating the Mayor’s Office of Re-Entry that helms the city’s efforts to help offenders come home from prison. Most of the city’s 135 victims of criminal homicide in 2014 had rap sheets. Ballard’s people believe that if those offenders had access to steady paychecks and social services, they might not end up back on the street, and the number of homicides would likely decline. Riggs, Ballard’s public safety director, calls RecycleForce “the future of re-entry.” “In public-safety meetings, we refer to what they’re doing as God’s work,” Riggs says. “I can give you the economic benefits. I can give you the crime benefits. But at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do.”

Over the last 12 years, the nonprofit has found full-time work for 600 ex-cons—about 60 percent of those who have passed through the doors. That sounds like a lot, but Keesling would like to see more. One of the model’s flaws is that it ultimately relies on the willingness of the public sector to hire ex-felons after their stint at RecycleForce, and the ideal has never quite lined up with reality. Those who don’t find real employment often end up on RecycleForce’s payroll longer-term; Keesling expects them to be involved with the program for as long as 18 months, even if they’re not working at RecycleForce the entire time.

But the alternatives are nil; without RecycleForce, it’s sink or swim. By the end of 2014, with homicides nearing peak levels and an estimated 135,000 Marion County residents living with a felony record, Ballard unveiled a crime-prevention program that addresses root causes and re-entry. Prior to the official rollout, Keesling joined a dozen other re-entry advocates at the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s Regional Operations Center, where Riggs outlined elements of the plan. It included a prominent role for RecycleForce.

While the new approach didn’t include a formal contract for RecycleForce (the relationship is more ad hoc, Keesling says), RecycleForce remains partially funded by Marion County taxpayers. In 2008, Ballard’s first year in office, RecycleForce received $250,000 out of a pot of $5 million in Community Crime Prevention Grants. But last year, that grant pool dwindled to $1.86 million, and RecycleForce’s share shrank to $80,000. The plunge, it turns out, foreshadowed an across-the-board nosedive in available resources, as foundations began to concentrate on funding to combat the root causes of crime rather than the after-effects. Quickly, Keesling’s formula for re-entry and its financial model—the prescription Riggs and Ballard were counting on—began hemorrhaging cash.

 

Even when he was running marijuana, Keesling was always more hippie than financial mastermind of a drug empire, more Lebowski than Scarface. These days he’s known to show up to official meetings in stonewashed blue jeans and New Balance sneakers, sometimes wearing a psychedelic shirt, with his gray-flecked red hair pulled back into a ponytail—a bleeding heart among stone-serious businessmen and politicians.

In addition to plain bad luck, perhaps RecycleForce is just as much a victim of Keesling’s idealism—which sometimes borders on wishful thinking when it comes to the company’s financial struggles.

“RecycleForce is addressing two major issues that this country faces: What we do with our waste and what we do with people who are [treated] like human waste.”

For a while, that rosy outlook was well-founded. In early 2014, inspired by President Obama’s State of the Union call for Congress to raise the minimum wage, RecycleForce’s employees voted themselves a small wage hike. Though the measure was nonbinding, Keesling complied. At the time, RecycleForce was partly propped up by grants—a little over $2 million, or 40 percent of total revenues. The other chunk—60 percent, or $3 million plus—came from business income, primarily recycling sales. But by the end of last year, RecycleForce’s volatile financial model began to shake. The nonprofit’s $5.6 million Department of Labor grant from years earlier ran dry, and Keesling found out his company’s share of the Community Crime Prevention Grants would dip below his expectations. RecycleForce laid off 50 workers. While Keesling was able to find jobs for a few of them, others found their way back onto the streets.

In the past, leaving RecycleForce has ended tragically for some workers. Quintico Goolsby, for instance, had been in the program for only a couple of weeks in 2013 when he stopped showing up. He ended up killing two people, an 84-year-old woman and her 30-year-old daughter, inside their home on Dearborn Street. IMPD officer Greg Milburn was dispatched to the scene after a neighbor reported hearing a woman scream. Goolsby reportedly started shooting at Milburn. Milburn shot back, killing Goolsby. Milburn’s life was spared only by his body armor. Six RecycleForcers have died since August 2012: Two, including Goolsby, were shot and killed by police in the process of committing crimes; three were murdered on the streets; and one died of an overdose.

By November 2014, Keesling learned more bad news. Private foundations, such as those run by Harry and Jeanette Weinberg and the Old National Bank, were declining his grant applications. The Glick Foundation reduced its funding of RecycleForce. Instead of underwriting ex-offender projects, a lot of sources were backing programs such as early-childhood education. At the same time, commodity prices for items such as copper and plastic, which are tied to oil prices, began to plummet. All of this drained RecycleForce’s cash on hand—and fast. Keesling agreed to take a 10 percent cut in his $92,000 salary.

The entire operation lay under a guillotine of debits. But even at that point—as the situation at RecycleForce began to echo the earlier financial troubles at Keys to Work—Keesling never shared the full extent of the bad news with Ballard or Riggs. “I was embarrassed,” he says, adding that after years of holding out his hand, he was weary of, at best, becoming the boy who cried wolf, and at worst, a “poverty pimp,” as one prominent state lawmaker called Keesling before understanding his commitment. “People think I’m a huckster,” he says.

The fact that embarrassment would prevent Keesling from offering full disclosure to those so dependent on his program would likely seem implausible to a more calculating businessperson. As 2014 drew to a close, Keesling sat in his second-floor office on a cold and gray morning, fretting over financial statements on his desk and wondering how he was going to keep the doors open. The balance sheet foretold only bad news: RecycleForce had maybe months to live. The night before, Keesling had received an email from his board, telling him he needed to cut about a third of his already-beleaguered workforce—45 out of his remaining 125 employees needed to go. At its height, the company had employed 300-plus. Despite objections from some members of the board, he toyed with an idea to tap $30,000 from a $100,000 line of credit to cover the week’s payroll—enough to buy another three weeks or so of operation. But even if RecycleForce did survive past then, a six-month rent forbearance on the facility was due to expire in April. Keesling eventually made the cuts. Those who remained had their hours reduced from 40 to 35 per week. Those who didn’t said their goodbyes and exited the warehouse floor.

Before leaving, Edward Weaver, one of the last to go, approached Preach and Moose, both of whom survived the layoff. At 44, Weaver had 21 children and had only recently learned there is a 22nd. RecycleForce wages helped him pay nearly $10,000 in child support last year—money his kids otherwise might not have seen.

Preach and Moose reminded Weaver to take what he had learned at RecycleForce and continue building a new life. Before he came to the program, Weaver had sold dope and robbed others who did the same. His biggest take, $70,000—about three times what he made in a year at RecycleForce—came when he put a pistol in another dealer’s mouth until he gave him the money. “I’m moving forward,” he told them. “Shit, it’s my first job,” he said of RecycleForce, as he choked back tears. “But it ain’t my last.”

 

RecycleForce stalwarts like Charles Neal and Lionel Muse (left to right) say the nonprofit has kept them off the street.
RecycleForce stalwarts like Charles Neal and Lionel Muse (left to right) say the nonprofit has kept them off the street.

Photo by Tony Valainis

It’s difficult to say if RecycleForce’s financial model is the right approach—or if the laidback Keesling is the right man to run what has become an essential city service. But no one has done more for Marion County’s ex-felons. That is, in part, because no one else has done much of anything for them.

Still, it’s hard to find an official in Indianapolis who opposes RecycleForce’s mission or method. In interviews, Ballard, Riggs, representatives of the Marion County prosecutor’s office, criminal-court judges, the chief probation officer for Marion Superior Court, police officers, and university professors have only positive things to say about Keesling’s work, if not the stability of the funding model. As they learned of the operation’s financial troubles, which caught them off guard, officials such as Riggs wanted to help, but not with what RecycleForce needed most: cash.

“We have approximately 8,000 individuals who re-enter Marion County [after incarceration] each year. Without RecycleForce, many of them will not be given the opportunity to succeed,” Riggs says. “It is imperative for the future of our city that organizations such as RecycleForce be able to continue to operate and provide help and a future to those in need.”

The Central Indiana Community Foundation, a longtime source of funds for RecycleForce, offered up a free consultant from Eli Lilly, on top of the for-hire consultant with whom Keesling was already working. The Lilly consultant spent numerous hours of his time with Keesling. CICF also connected RecycleForce with Bryan Orander, president of Charitable Advisors, an Indianapolis consultancy for nonprofits. On January 30, Orander wrote a memo to CICF, which administers Marion County’s Community Crime Prevention Grant Program. Until RecycleForce could secure a contract with the city or state, it read, CICF should help RecycleForce build a “coalition of local funders to provide a known stream of revenue each month to help keep the organization funded at a basic level.”

Indeed, more reliable funding would bode better for long-term success than scrambling for grants or reaching for other magic bullets. Keesling is convinced the results of the Department of Labor study could put RecycleForce in line for more government and private funding. But the findings have yet to be released.

A few weeks after IM emailed Riggs’s office, alerting him that RecycleForce was on the brink of closing, Riggs scheduled a visit to the workers’ circle time one February morning. “I wanted to come here today to say how impressed I am with your work ethic and what you do each and every day,” Riggs told the men. He shared a brief devotional from what he said was his daily Bible reading, referencing an Old Testament passage. When the Israelites were coming out of Egyptian bondage and slavery, Riggs told them, their guide was a pillar of fire at night and a cloud by day. God, Riggs said, would do the same for the men in the circle. In the meantime, if they ever needed anything from the Department of Public Safety, they should let him know.

Over the next 30 minutes, the ex-cons took Riggs up on his offer: The program that employed them needed funding.

“There’s got to be a lane for this right here,” Moose told Riggs. “Be a voice for us.”

“You mentioned the Scriptures,” Preach told Riggs. “God said if a man don’t work, he don’t eat … But the one thing that we’re all troubled by is this here: We’re never in the conversation about funding. This place cannot exist without the balance of business and funding.”

Finally, it was Keesling’s turn to talk. “We know you don’t have magic money,” Keesling told Riggs. “We know you can’t just write us a check.”

“Come on, just write us a check,” one employee interrupted.

Keesling continued, ignoring the interruption and ensuing chuckles. “We think this is the best program, not just in Indianapolis, but in the whole country, and we want to have a level of funding.”

A week before Riggs’s visit, Keesling was worried he had lost the confidence of some of his board members. “I think someone is trying to hurt me,” Keesling said, though he declined to identify them. According to Keesling, those board members thought RecycleForce should rely solely on the revenue from electronic-waste recycling. Board chairman Rubenstein eventually resigned, citing a need to focus on his legal work. Despite Keesling’s worries, Rubenstein insists Keesling has the support of the board. “He’s done something better than anybody else, and on the brink of sheer victory, the rug has been pulled out from beneath him,” Rubenstein says.

RecycleForce’s finances soured to the point where its bank, PNC, shut down a lease on a massive piece of new equipment—a TITECH metal-finder that helps RecycleForce recover valuable commodities amid electronic scrap—imperiling its business operations. (The bank later reversed course.) Around the same time, Keesling got a small reprieve: The Kellogg Foundation had decided to award the organization a $375,000 grant after all.

In early February, Keesling called Ted Levinson, one of his biggest financial backers in recent years and the senior director of social-enterprise lending at RSF Social Finance, a San Francisco–based underwriter of organizations such as RecycleForce. RSF takes money from private investors, loans them to for-profit and nonprofit social enterprises, and offers small returns similar to a bank certificate of deposit. A few years ago, when they first met, Keesling called Levinson and asked to borrow $500,000 for a machine called “The Beast,” which chews up old television and computer monitors and spits out their most valuable parts. After three visits to Indianapolis and a stringent analysis of RecycleForce’s finances and operations, Levinson loaned Keesling the money.

When they spoke in February, Levinson couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “It boggles my mind that an organization like RecycleForce that is on the cusp of having a national stage for the work that it is doing can’t garner more support in its hometown,” Levinson says. “RecycleForce is addressing two major issues that this country faces: What we do with our waste and what we do with people who are [treated] like human waste.”

RecycleForce hires employees who, “after six months, just after they are beginning to contribute to the bottom line of the organization, are sent out to get permanent jobs elsewhere and replaced by a new crop of equally unqualified employees,” he says. “[It is] a terrible business, and [it’s] a brilliant social enterprise.”

As Keesling sees it, the city spends far too much money incarcerating people—and the state far too much housing them in the Department of Corrections—to not allocate a proportionate amount of money to help them come home.

But for all Keesling’s last-minute scrambling and strategizing with consultants, unless RecycleForce finds funding, it could still be headed for the scrap heap—putting at risk not only a popular recycling service and the safety of the city, but the very lives of the men who helped build it.

 

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