How America Can Do More to Help Black Men Returning Home from Prison Find Jobs: Reflections on RecycleForce’s Trip to Capitol Hill

By Caitlin C. Schnur, Workforce Research and Policy Fellow

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 “In the summer of 2012, I had just been released from federal prison. I was staying in a halfway house and job hunting, but I really couldn’t come up with any work…It’s so hard to come home from prison and it shouldn’t be…A couple of men at the halfway house stumbled across RecycleForce and told me about it…RecycleForce took a chance with me and I pretty much try to take advantage of every opportunity they’ve given me.” — Robert Perry, RecycleForce

As March came to a close, RecycleForce staff, including former program participant Robert Perry, met up with the National Transitional Jobs Network (NTJN) team in Washington, D.C. We were there to support the B.MORE Initiative’s efforts to champion policies that open doors to employment and economic advancement for low-income black men.  Located in Indianapolis, Indiana, RecycleForce provides people returning home from incarceration with transitional jobs (TJ) in its revenue-generating recycling business and provides comprehensive supportive services so that returning citizens can overcome barriers to employment and successfully reenter their communities.

Robert Perry, a former RecycleForce program participant and now the organization’s Shipping and Receiving Coordinator, was integral in showing Indiana’s Congressional delegates why it’s important that they put their support behind employment programs and policies like banning the box that help low-income black men succeed in work.

In meetings with legislators in D.C., Robert was courageous enough to share the struggles he faced finding a job when he returned home from incarceration and how RecycleForce helped him become employed and advance in the workplace.  In this interview, Robert opens up again to share RecycleForce’s impact on his life, reflect on his time in D.C., and make the case for why “banning the box” can help ensure that everyone who wants to work can find a job.

NTJN: How did you become involved with RecycleForce, and how has being a ReycleForce participant impacted your life?

Robert Perry: In the summer of 2012, I had just been released from federal prison. I was staying in a halfway house and job hunting, but I really couldn’t come up with any work. A couple of men at the halfway house stumbled across RecycleForce and told me about it.  I was able to get a referral and come into the program as a participant.

As for the impact, RecycleForce took a chance with me and I pretty much try to take advantage of every opportunity they’ve given me.  The program staff can help you with so much here—everything from getting new glasses to getting an apartment!  RecycleForce staff members were instrumental in showing me what I needed to do to regain custody of my daughter, who had been taken into Child Protective Services after her mother lost custody of her while I was incarcerated.  I’m proud to say I’ve had my daughter back for 14 months.

For me, RecycleForce has been a stable place to come every day and make money.  They gave me an opportunity to advance into a permanent staff position here, and now I’m the Shipping and Receiving Coordinator.  RecycleForce has really kept me on track since I got here!

NJTN: What do you think is unique about RecycleForce that helps its participants achieve low return to prison rates?

Robert Perry: One of RecycleForce’s most important components is our peer mentorship.  We always say that RecycleForce is “for us, by us”—and mentorship is a big part of that.  Through peer mentorship, people who have come back from incarceration are there to guide new program participants in the right direction.  As peers who have been through the struggle of incarceration, it’s easier for us to pass information to our new colleagues about what we’ve learned since coming home and how we’ve learned it.  Many people who come home from prison just have a case manager instructing them on what to do, and in school or prison you’ve always had someone telling you what to do rather than getting that information from a peer who can help you.  I think RecycleForce’s peer mentorship is the biggest thing we have going here that makes us unique.

NJTN: What were your initial thoughts about traveling to Washington, D.C., with the NTJN team?  

Robert Perry:  I knew that the trip to D.C. would be a learning experience.  I traveled to D.C. when I was younger, but this time I’d be talking to Indiana delegates, which I hadn’t done before.  Since becoming a member of the B.MORE Community of Practice, I’ve spoken a lot with James Jones, the B.MORE Initiative Coordinator.  He’s been a mentor to me, so I knew that having the chance to travel and work more with James meant that it was going to be a pretty cool trip!

NTJN: What surprised you about your trip to Washington, D.C.? 

Robert Perry: What surprised me is that the Congressional staff we spoke to were very receptive.  When we went to The Hill, I thought it would be a situation in which the staff members would take some notes but not really pass along the information we shared to the delegates.  Instead, it seemed like the staffers were receptive to what we were telling them and would definitely pass along the information.  I was also surprised that it seemed that some Congressional staffers didn’t really realize that finding employment is a struggle for people who are coming out of prison.  That was an eye-opener for me—and our stories were an eye-opener for them, too!   

NJTN: What types of policies do you feel are necessary to ensure that individuals coming out of incarceration can access employment?  

Robert Perry:  The “ban the box” movement that’s spreading around the country is critical to helping ensure that people with criminal records can get jobs.  When a city, county, or state “bans the box,” it usually means that a job application can’t ask about someone’s conviction history and that there’s a delay in when an employer can do a background check.  This is something that we talked to Congressional staff about when we were in D.C. A lot of guys just need a second chance—we’re people too, and we need to survive just like the next guy regardless of a mistake we made in the past.

My own story illustrates why banning the box is so important.  When I came home from prison, I filled out numerous job applications.  I have a college degree and had held jobs with management experience in the past.  I would apply and then just hear back from employers that they were “moving on.”  I was applying to entry-level positions, and I was getting no love!  I was struggling with that and thinking, ‘What do we do here?  What can we do to balance out the chances?’  It’s so hard to come home from prison and it shouldn’t be.  If you’ve been to prison, you’ve served your debt to society—but then you come back and try to get a job and it’s not just hoops you have to jump through, it’s like you’re facing brick walls you have to break down!

I’m happy to say that as of February, Indianapolis has a ban the box ordinance in effect that applies to certain employers.  If ban the box policies were more widespread, then more people with criminal records would be able to get jobs—or at least have a better chance.  It’s important to remember that we are all human, we can change, and that’s what we need to focus on.

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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