September 28, 2007

Catholic connections help local business give former inmates a second chance in society

Instead of throwing away old computers, some Catholic schools and parishes in the archdiocese have turned to RecycleForce, an Indianapolis company that recycles parts from old electronic equipment and employs people just released from prison to do the work. Here, employee John Hill takes a computer shell from the company’s president, Thomas Gray.

Instead of throwing away old computers, some Catholic schools and parishes in the archdiocese have turned to RecycleForce, an Indianapolis company that recycles parts from old electronic equipment and employs people just released from prison to do the work. Here, employee John Hill takes a computer shell from the company’s president, Thomas Gray.

By John Shaughnessy

At first glance, Alice Reahard and John Hill seem like strangers from different worlds instead of two people connected by a hope and a dream.

Reahard works as the information technology specialist at St. Luke School on the affluent north side of Indianapolis, a woman who introduces new technology to the school and ensures the computers run smoothly.

Hill works in an old factory building on the struggling near-east side of Indianapolis, a man with a criminal past who helps to break down outdated computers into their smallest, salvageable parts.

Yet the lives of Reahard and Hill intersect through an unusual business that recycles old electronic equipment and tries to give hope and a future to people who have recently been released from prison.

The connection of Reahard’s and Hill’s lives also offers a different look at the Christian principles of forgiveness and redemption, and how the possibilities for forgiveness and redemption are sometimes played out—or not—for individuals in our society today.

A ‘win-win’ situation

When Reahard ordered new computers for St. Luke School in 2006, she cared too much about the environment to just throw away the 120 used computers. So she contacted RecycleForce, a company headed by Thomas Gray, the son of longtime St. Luke parishioner Elizabeth “Libby” Gray.

Employees at RecycleForce take old computers and other electronic equipment and break them down into their basic parts—screws, wiring, batteries, metals and circuit boards—which the company then sells to recycling businesses. The company’s mission also includes employing people just released from prison to do the work.

“We help them to make the transition back into the community,” Gray says. “We provide them paid employment, help them with housing, insurance, driver’s licenses and court orders. We also help them to find permanent employment in the private sector. We act as a reference, and we also help them prepare resumes.”

The effort is part of the National Transitional Jobs Network, an organization that understands how hard it is for people just released from prison to get a job and start a new life. RecycleForce officials cite a study stating that 70 percent of employers in Marion County won’t hire an ex-convict.

Company officials also share a list of the Catholic schools and parishes across the archdiocese that have used their services to recycle old computers, printers and monitors. Saint Mary-of-the Woods College near Terre Haute is on that list.

“They picked up two huge loads, about 20,000 pounds of recycling stuff—old computers, printers, monitors and fax machines,” says Mike Patrick, the director of information systems at the college. “I thought it was a win-win. It allowed us to safely dispose of things, and they employ recently released convicts and that gives them a second chance.”

When Reahard called RecycleForce about St. Luke’s old computers, she felt she was extending hope to the people who would be working on them.

“I think it’s a wonderful program,” she says. “It’s helping our environment. We throw away so much electronics in our landfills. They’re also giving people jobs, and they’re doing something useful. It’s good to give them dignity in their lives and purpose in their lives.”

Seeking redemption

In an old factory, John Hill works in a back room at RecycleForce, baling recycled steel, plastic and wire into huge blocks that will be shipped to companies around the United States and the world.

Now 60, Hill says he has spent most of his adult life in prison on drug-related charges. He takes responsibility for his past.

“I made mistakes in my life,” he says. “The only thing I can do now is to see if I can help somebody else in life. The only way I can do that is to get on my feet myself. I’m really sad for the grief I caused, but that was in my younger days.”

He gives credit to his family for helping him through his transition from prison back into society. He also thanks RecycleForce for giving him a job.

“The hardest thing when you get out of jail is trying to find something to go into,” Hill says. “This is a transition program. It’s to help you get started. Then you have to move on to something else so someone else can get started.

“At 60, I don’t have a lot of options. I’ve been saving my money to go to truck-driving school. It’s hard on what I’m making, but I have most of the money saved. I hope that if I go, I’ll get work. I hope that someone will give me the opportunity.”

The grace of God

Thomas Gray knows about opportunity. He worked in New York City as a financial analyst for major banks. Yet after years of 80-hour work weeks, he and his wife decided to return to Indianapolis to raise their family.

As president of RecycleForce, he has chosen to be in a world far different from Wall Street.

“Why am I doing this? There are a mosaic of reasons,” Gray, 42, says. “Giving back to the community. Trying to make the world a better place. The challenge of getting a business up and running.

“People do not appreciate how much luck plays a role in their life—especially powerful executives, Wall Street traders, who invariably believe that they achieved their status completely on their own skill, ignoring the huge role that chance played in their success.”

As he talks to his employees and hears their stories, Gray sometimes finds himself thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

“You owe it back to society,” he says. “I wish if I was on the other side, someone would help me. We really should put in place a broad safety net to help people get back on their feet, or make their way in life, because there is not that much that keeps us from falling down the ladder.”

So he and others in the company—with the help of places like St. Luke School and people like Reahard—offer a hand of assistance.

“Sixty-one men have been through the program,” says Gregg Keesling, who works with Gray. “Two have returned to prison, four have been let go and the other 55 either work with us or are in transition.”

Gray and Keesling also share the success stories.

There’s the story of the man who was convicted of armed robbery when he was 18, served his time, got out of jail, came to RecycleForce, and eventually ended up getting a job and his first house.

There’s the story of a former drug dealer who received his first paycheck from RecycleForce and asked if he could photocopy it because it was the first paycheck he ever received.

“He said he wanted to go home and show it to his kids,” Gray says.

The challenge and the hope

Still, Gray knows the challenges for the former convicts are great.

“Where we’re weakest is, ‘Where do people go after they leave here?’ ” he says. “Companies have the fear of being held liable for hiring a felon.”

There is also the harsh reality that many people with criminal pasts return to prison. According to a 2002 study by the United States Justice Department, “67 percent of former inmates released from U.S. state prisons in 1994 were back in jail within three years.”

The hope of a job and a future are one way to lower those rates, say Gray and Keesling.

Former inmates believe in that hope, too, according to David Siler, executive director of Catholic Charities and Family Ministries for the archdiocese. He has visited RecycleForce and met with employees there.

“I was immediately struck by the sincere gratitude that the men expressed for the opportunity to work,” Siler says. “The men told me that it’s nearly impossible to find employment after being incarcerated, stating that most large companies have an actual policy against hiring ex-convicts and smaller employers just don’t want to take a chance on them. They said that a decent-paying job is the key to the success of their re-entry into society.

“One man told me as tears welled up in his eyes that he had many years to think about what he took away from society through his life of crime and that he is committed to giving back more than he took away.”

John Hill is one of the men who have that goal. He looks at his past and his mistakes, and he sees this point in his life as an opportunity to redeem himself, to set a better example for his 24 grandchildren.

“I’d like to help somebody else because there are people who helped me,” he says. “I’d just like a chance.”

(For more information about RecycleForce, log on to or call 317-532-1367.) †

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