WHYY is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on the issues facing formerly incarcerated Philadelphians. The aim is to produce journalism that speaks, across the city and across media platforms, to the challenges and solutions for reentry.
Set back from a quiet street in East Germantown, sits a creaky, jam-packed warehouse that’s giving ex-offenders their first shot at a second chance.
And it all starts with trash. Specifically, outdated electronics.
PAR-Recycle Works, a year-old nonprofit, uses cash from scrapping the valuable parts of donated tech to provide temporary jobs to men and women fresh out of jail.
The hope is that the organization can be a stepping stone for securing permanent employment — for staying on the straight path.
Board member Laura Ford likens Recycle Works to a nest, a place that nurtures and teaches its employees they’re valuable despite their criminal pasts.
“There’s all kinds of valuable things inside of a computer — gold, copper, and all kinds of precious metals. And there’s all kinds of precious things inside these men,” said Ford.
Employees typically stay on for six to nine months months, though there’s no hard cut-off for leaving the program.
At $10 an hour, three days a week, it’s not the kind of gig that will make paying for life much easier. But participants, such as Malik, say the value of a place like Recycle Works extends far beyond a paycheck.
“It gives a guy a sense of self, and it prepares him for a skill set going out into the workforce. Which is to say, he gets up every morning, on time, he shows up for work, he works hard, he feels fulfilled,” said Malik, who served 20 years after committing an “economic” crime.
Fellow ex-offender Maurice, operations manager at Recycle Works, said the nonprofit also provides its employees with a much-needed support system.
Coming home from prison is often harder than being behind bars, where there are no real-life responsibilities and far less temptation. Having someone to talk to — someone who knows what you’re going through — helps, he said.
“I’ve been in the desert,” said Maurice.
Maurice has been out of prison since 2011. He was arrested after trying to rob an undercover cop. He was selling drugs at the time, but said he wasn’t making enough to feed his family.
Six years later, Maurice said he still misses the “brotherhood” — the sense of community — he had while he was locked up. It’s why he’s happy to hand out his cell phone number to employees at Recycle Works who may be struggling to find their footing on the outside.
“A lot of guys just say, ‘Tell me something good.’ And one of the things I tell them: ‘It’s gonna be OK.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I’m thinking about doing X.’ Listen, that’s not what you want to do. Do you want to go back to jail? Sometimes they need that wake up call,” said Maurice.
For Gerald, floor supervisor at Recycle Works, the temporary employees keep him “green” — a law-abiding citizen. He’s been with the nonprofit for three years after finishing up a federal drug sentence.
“Energy is bounced back. Anytime you’re around positive people, that energy reflects back,” said Gerald.
On a recent wind-whipped afternoon, Maurice and Malik rumbled into S.D. Richman Sons, an expansive scrap yard in Port Richmond not far from I-95.
They come here once a week to cash in on other people’s junk — and to see a friend.
Brandon was one of Recycle Works’ first employees. After serving time for aggravated assault, the soon-to-be father now works full time for Richman’s. The owner saw his work ethic and brought him on board.
Brandon (center) says that having a job gives him purpose. Malik (left) and Maurice accompanied him on a run to the scrapyard.(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
“It feels much better to do things legally — not worrying about having to look behind my back or thinking I’m gonna get caught for this. Now, I can just wake up and go to work and cash my check and feel good about it.”
It makes him feel particularly good about his future.
Brandon said he wants to open his own scrap yard one day. So far, trash has been his ticket to a better life. Why scrap it now?