‘You can change your life’: North Philly e-waste recycler employs and supports people coming home from prison

Listen 4:11
Bill Allen is PAR-Recycle Works’ factory manager.

Bill Allen is PAR-Recycle Works’ factory manager. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The aisles and shelves in the warehouse at PAR-Recycle Works in North Philadelphia are covered in discarded electronic devices. There are old computers, printers, routers, charging cables, and more.

While this stuff may seem like junk to many, to the people employed at Recycle Works, it represents something bigger — the chance to start over.

“There are still valuable parts in these things,” said founder Maurice Jones, who goes by Q. “There are still valuable parts that are in people that are coming home from prison and jail. We are the polisher of those parts…we show them that there’s still value in themselves, just as in these things that have once been thrown away.”

Maurice “Q” Jones is general manager of PAR-Recycle Works in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Jones founded PAR-Recycle Works — which stands for People Advancing Reintegration — in 2016. He wanted to address two big problems: the increase in electronic waste and the difficulty that people coming out of prison face when trying to find employment and support.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Our thought process of this inception of this social justice and environmental justice sandwich is to assist individuals that are coming home to land softly and upskill themselves,” said Jones, all while preventing usable electronic parts from ending up in the landfill.

Maurice “Q” Jones, general manager of PAR-Recycle Works in North Philadelphia, explains the deconstruction process for a computer motherboard. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Recycle Works employs formerly incarcerated people anywhere for four to nine months; the time varies person to person, since everyone’s reentry journey is different. Employees typically start by sorting devices, then learn how to deconstruct electronics for valuable materials such as gold and copper, and can progress to driving vehicles and interfacing with the general public. After employees deconstruct items, Recycle Works sells the parts and sends the remainder to other vendors who meet recycler requirements in Pennsylvania.

The nonprofit also offers opportunities for employees to gain skills in conflict resolution, digital and financial literacy, and support in getting a driver’s license. The goal is to offer support, reduce recidivism, recycle or sell what’s possible, and set people up for success in their next job.

E-waste recycling and management is also a growing industry and Jones was inspired to start PAR-Recycle Works after learning about a similar program in Indianapolis called RecycleForce.

He was also motivated by his own experience of being incarcerated for almost seven years.

“Going to jail was one of the best things that ever happened to me, in hindsight,” Jones said. “It was that catalyst for me changing my life.”

PAR-Recycle Works in North Philadelphia hires people who were formerly incarcerated to deconstruct electronics. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Jones’ post-prison life wasn’t easy. After his release in 2011, Jones was ready to start over but had a hard time finding work.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Many people gave me a scarlet letter, even though I was capable,” he said. “That has been my why — I want people not to have those same experiences that I had, of being told no.”

PAR-Recycle Works has worked with more than 110 formerly incarcerated people. The organization connects with potential employees in a variety of ways: They host virtual job fairs with correctional facilities, correspond directly with people who reach out to them, and receive referrals from other reentry organizations. Sometimes, people also just walk up to the warehouse.

Andre Davis, one of PAR-Recycle Works founders, walks new hires through orientation. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Jones loves what he does. It’s more than a job to him — it’s a calling, a purpose.

“I love that individuals can have a place that is unlike any other employment they ever get anywhere else,” the 41-year-old said. “It’s a place of teamwork. It’s a place of community. It’s a place where we want to see each other flourish and be successful.”

‘You can change your life’

Bill Allen has worked at PAR-Recycle Works for two and a half years. The 53-year-old is charismatic, stylish, and wears a big smile. Officially, he’s the first-ever warehouse manager and helps train new workers, but his role is more than that — he’s a mentor or big brother to the people who come through the employment program.

“I did 20 some years in federal prison. With that, I lost a lot that I can’t bring back. So my thing is enjoy life because life is too short and you only got one life, so why not be happy?” Allen said. “So I tell the guys, ‘Just enjoy your life…you only got one.’”

PAR-Recycle Works in North Philadelphia hires people who were formerly incarcerated to deconstruct electronics and aims to lift-up their employees with mentoring and positivity. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Allen’s experience and positive attitude makes him approachable. Many workers come to him with all kinds of personal and work-related “situations” (he doesn’t like the word “problems”), and he helps find solutions.

“You can’t think when you’re mad,” Allen said. “So I tell these guys, ‘Never get mad because you can’t think when you’re mad. Sit down, rationalize stuff, plan it out and you’ll be OK.’”

To Allen, PAR-Recycle Works is the ideal workplace since he gets to use a variety of skills, beyond the technical.

“It makes me feel good because I’m helping somebody and I’m changing these guys’ lives,” he said. “I’m changing the lens of how they used to look at things, of how they look at things now.”

A man stands outside of a garage entryway.
Andre Davis directs a truck into PAR-Recycle Works’ warehouse in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sometimes employees at PAR-Recycling Works need a bit more support. Many find themselves needing assistance with everyday necessities and when that’s the case, Andre Davis is there to help. He’s a reentry navigator.

“A lot of our guys will be struggling with housing or with transportation, struggling with food, clothing,” Davis said. “My task is to find out which guys have those problems and connect them to the proper resources.”

Davis fairly recently got acclimated after a prison sentence, so he feels confident being able to offer the help that’s needed.

“I just came home myself in January and all of this stuff was fresh,” he said. The organization considered partnering with mental health professionals, but decided to hire Davis instead. “Most social workers really don’t know what it feels like…they weren’t coming from a place that was conducive to the guys and women that we work with.”

A man stands in front of a sign that reads PAR Recycle Works.
Andre Davis, one of PAR-Recycle Works founders, returned to society in January. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Offering this kind of support is one of the things that sets PAR-Recycle Works apart from other employers, Jones said.

“We’re spreading that you can change your life. One screw at a time, one computer at a time, one step at a time,” he said.

Recycling stuff — and lives

As we enter the holiday season, a time when consumerism peaks, Jones wants people to be mindful when they make their wish lists.

“Do you necessarily need to buy that next device or absolutely have to have it?” he said. “If you are able to, can you just try to use it and try to repair it?”

Recycled game controllers waiting to be deconstructed at PAR-Recycle Works in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Jones encourages people to donate devices they’re no longer using to PAR-Recycle Works and help support doing good in more ways than one.

“Like they say, one person’s trash is another treasure,” said Allen, the warehouse manager. “What we’re doing here, like I say, we recycle stuff and not only this electronic stuff, we’re recycling these guys, too.”

Stacks of computer towers are visible.
Computer towers waiting to be deconstructed inside PAR-Recycle Works in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

PAR-Recycle Works hosts events across Greater Philadelphia for people to drop off electronics. They also offer pick-up services and accept donations Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at their warehouse at 2024 W. Hunting Park Ave.

Subscribe to PlanPhilly

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal