Gregg Keesling may have dropped out of Earlham College at 19 years of age, but he soon gained a worldly education by landing in Jamaica. He then spent over two decades in the midst of civil unrest as the Caribbean nation fought for its identity in a changing world. With his adopted country at a tipping point in 1980, he saw the election of Ronald Reagan back home help to bring capitalism to the island.
He notes that he himself converted from a "hippie" to a capitalist, and began working on developing a hotel — and then public projects like helping eradicate polio from the country and working with the European Union to install a sewer system in the area, which ultimately helped gentrify the area around the hotel. His participation in Rotarian work eventually brought him back to Indianapolis, where he founded RecycleForce in 2003.
Not only does RecycleForce work to help the environment by providing an array of waste disposal services, but the 501(c)(3)'s staff is mostly made up of men and women who have spent time in Indiana's corrections system. Keesling is focused on helping them re-enter society by finding gainful employment.
"These (ex-offenders) are some of the best people on earth," he contends. "They’ve been tagged as if they’re not. Someone once said 'the arc of history bends toward justice' – and it’s hard to be openly racist anymore, like when I grew up in the 1970s … but you can certainly use the same sentiments and feelings and call the person an 'ex-offender.' And you can get away with it, and say 'I don’t want those criminals in my neighborhood. They should all be locked up.' But these are human beings with inherent worth; they’re fathers, brothers, uncles and they deserve a role in our world."
Keesling asserts that the liability employers are currently burdened with is the most significant barrier to employment for former prisoners.
"If a guy is doing a great job and a company wants to hire him directly (after using a staffing company), the liability would keep them from doing it … if companies want to reduce their liability insurance, they screen out ex-offenders."
He points to a study recently conducted by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) indicating 70% of employers in Marion County have some type of barrier against hiring an ex-offender.
"Many will hire them, but you have to be out of prison for five or seven years," Keesling qualifies. "So the question is: What do you do for those years? How do you eat? You can’t get food stamps. You can’t get public housing. You can’t get any help and seven out of 10 employers won’t hire you. There are 135,000 to 150,000 felons and high misdemeanors in Marion County, according to the UC Berkeley Center for Employment Law."
He believes a solution could start at the Statehouse.
"If there’s one thing the Legislature could do, it would be smart tort reform around what is a negligent hire," Keesling offers. "If a guy committed a robbery, he can still drive a truck. Now I wouldn’t want to put a (recovering) drunk in a truck, or a sex offender in daycare, but there has to be some logical ways to get them in the workforce."
Keesling harkens back to his memories of Jamaica about the dangers and violence that ensue when a large percentage of the population is not employable — and the desperation that leads people to commit crimes in order to eat.
Yet success stories are evident at RecycleForce, which currently employs 128 workers, with 22 others in management.
"I'm thankful for my job at RecycleForce," explains Robby Wiker, a truck driver for the company. "Without the help or training they gave me, I don't know where I'd be or what I'd be doing. They provided great training to me and it was without cost to me. I'm also a forklift operator and am trained in many warehouse operations — and I'm a permanent employee there."
The company is also now the sixth largest recycler in the state.
"It proves they can work. That’s the biggest myth – that these guys don’t want to work," Keesling reinforces. "I think it’s the most important issue of our time – that nobody seems to care about."