As a hippie expat living in Jamaica in the seventies, Gregg Keesling never imagined that 30 years later he would be helping hundreds of former violent criminals get back on their feet. Today, as president of Workforce, Inc, (WFI), Keesling loves to tell people what his company does best: “We keep people out of the landfill of life.”
Having discovered an abandoned factory on Indianapolis’ Near Eastside that was filled with “piles of electronic junk,” Keesling developed a business plan that today has resulted in almost 400 jobs and transformed lives.
It all began in 1996, after Keesling and his wife Jannett moved to Indianapolis from Jamaica. As civically-minded members of the Rotary Club, the Keeslings started Keys to Work, a staffing company for the hard-to-employ. Through Keys to Work, many found jobs at fast food restaurants at the Indianapolis Airport. But after 9/11, employers began insisting on clear background checks for all potential employees. Since no one wanted to hire men and women with blemished records, Keesling realized that he was going to have to become the employer himself. Having discovered an abandoned factory on Indianapolis’ Near Eastside that was filled with “piles of electronic junk,” Keesling developed a business plan that today has resulted in almost 400 jobs and transformed lives.
Keesling soon began hiring ex-offenders to disassemble, remake, and recycle the gold, copper, and other metals found in old computers, televisions and the like. Meanwhile, he began offering these men (and some women) support and guidance along the cumbersome road to successful re-entry.
Sagamore’s report shows that, in many ways, WFI is living up to its mantra. Currently, Marion County, Indiana has a recidivism rate of 54.8 percent, with 70 percent of this number returning to prison because of technical rule violations. On the merit of those numbers, 47 or more of the participants profiled in the report should have returned to prison within three years. But only 15 have returned to prison, a 16.7 percent recidivism rate.
The cost of reentry
Keesling’s contagious energy and exuberance transfers to even the most bashful employee. He holds them to high standards of professionalism and respect, but demonstrates pride at their even miniscule successes. He squeezes shoulders as he passes the men at work, calling them by nicknames and tousling their hardhats.
One employee—affectionately dubbed “the Grouch”—has doodled on his hat, “I’m not looking back, ’cause I’m not going back.” On one side, he has scrawled a picture of himself behind bars. On the other, an image of himself as a free man.
A study conducted by IUPUI showed that 65 percent of employers will not hire ex-offenders. WFI, on the other hand, employs violent offenders, almost exclusively. Their level of respect for Keesling, their obvious pride in the work they do, and their genuine desire to improve themselves make it easy for observers to forget that they have committed serious crimes. But for the ex-offender, this particular forgetfulness is harder to come by, as their transgressions of yesterday are their biggest expenses of today.
King is a 29-year-old veteran who spent 17 months in jail before coming to work at WFI. With nowhere to go after he was released from jail, he lived under a bridge, spending most of his time searching for food. Meanwhile, he was required to pay for his probation fees, probation-ordered counseling, drug testing, and a GPS monitor, totaling $713 per month.
Floundering under the weight of his expenses, King was referred to WFI by Marion County Community Corrections. Two years later, he is a quality control supervisor, responsible for training new employees, overseeing shipping and receiving, and tracking production of each employee and department.
Although he has come a long way since his days under the bridge, King still feels the sting of the stigma associated with all ex-offenders: “Because I have been convicted, I am now looked at by society as someone less than them, someone that they can now look down on. And all that I and most people really want is to come back to society and work, and do the right things. But it seems to me that it is set up for us to go back to prison.”
Because ex-offenders must work to pay so many fines and fees post–incarceration, many resort to thievery or selling drugs to cover the costs. This counter-productive cycle contributes to 70 percent of ex-offenders returning to prison on technical rule violations, which often stem from unpaid expenses.
The biggest financial strain for most ex-offenders, though, is child support and arrears—the amount that accumulated while the non-custodial parent was in prison. Many men and women leave prison owing thousands of dollars in arrears, a daunting sum for a person whose job prospects are slim to none.
The reason such an unmanageable sum accumulates is that child support rates are based on weekly income before a person enters prison. Although all Indiana inmates are now given the opportunity to have their child support agreements modified while they are in prison, many do not realize the importance of this step until it is too late.
WFI works with employees who desperately need the court to forgive their arrears, which also enables them to reconnect with their families–another key factor in reducing recidivism.
“If you can be a provider, you can be a nurturer,” Keesling explains. “The ability to pay child support empowers men to be real fathers.”
Excellent work, consistent punctuality, and substantial progress at WFI can be rewarded with free passes to the Indianapolis Zoo or various sporting events, offering men and women chances to create positive memories with their children.
WFI, by offering ex-offenders a chance to redeem themselves, empowers them to transform their lives. Of the 47 participants who completed the WFI program in Sagamore’s recent study, 33 were employed by the end of the study.
One man who went to prison in 1979 has now been employed at WFI for the past 16 months, making it the longest job he has ever held. He has gained marketable skills and now plans to move with his wife and three children to Georgia within the year. He says that WFI has taught him to “prove himself, accumulate money, and make plans,” and he hopes to use his new skills in a packing and receiving job in Georgia.
WFI allows former offenders to change their own lives in a way that would be impossible on the streets.
“Nobody out there cares about your needs, wants, desires, or dreams,” said one employee. “There’s nowhere else likes this.”