Germantown ex-offender group aims to restore lives while recycling electronic waste

Germantown ex-offender group aims to restore lives while recycling electronic waste

By and

Maurice Jones climbed into the cabin, turned the key and felt his chair shake from side to side as the truck’s engine rumbled to life.

It was early on the morning of April 22 – Earth Day – and Jones, a former prison inmate along with his six crew members, was on his way to La Salle University in Philadelphia’s Olney section to pick up discarded electronics, everything from dead cell phones to old PCs, to be taken apart and salvaged for valuable parts.

“Inside of computers are a lot of precious metals, and inside our men and women returning home from being incarcerated there are many valuable things,” Jones explained. “We just have to work to get them out.”

Maurice Jones, who spent six years in prison, now heads an electronic recycling orgnaization that employs ex-offenders coming out of prison. (Photo by Jared Peterman)

Jones, a tall, husky man with a full beard, is the chief operations officer of PAR-Recycle Works, an innovative Germantown-based non-profit that aims to accomplish two socially-conscious missions – save the environment from toxic electronic waste and rebuild the lives of men and women who have been released from prison. Its motto is: “Recycling Electronics. Restoring Lives.”

Twin problems

Each year, as the use of technology accelerates, so does the problem of electronic waste, experts say.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that American consumers and businesses discarded more than 2.37 million tons of electronic waste, often called “e-waste.” Just a quarter of the waste was recycled, the EPA said, with the rest going to landfills where the lead and mercury in discarded electronics can endanger both the environment and human health

At the same time, each year more than 650,000 ex-offenders are released from prison, according to the federal Department of Justice. By department estimates, about two-thirds will be re-arrested within three years of their release. Justice Department officials say three key elements can reduce the prison recidivism rate – providing ex-offenders with mentoring, transitional housing and, most importantly, jobs.

Contributing, not taking

“You think of someone bringing home $250 a week versus not having brought anything home for the last six or seven years, you talk about a sense of pride to be able to say, ‘I’m actually contributing versus taking away,’” Jones said.

PAR-Recycling was founded on the belief that a job, even a transitional job, is crucial to the ability of an ex-offender to leave prison and become a productive member of society. At the same time, it hopes to salvage and properly dispose of growing mounds of electronic waste in that are piling up in Philadelphia and around the world.

Currently, the organization is conducting e-waste drives in the Philadelphia area every weekend through October. To schedule a pick-up, call 267-335-5455.

“My experience at PAR has been a blessing,” said Gerald Williams, 52, who was in and out of prison for 20 years before becoming an employee of PAR-Recycling when it opened in February, 2016.

Gerald Williams, who was in and out of prison for 20 years, is now the warehouse manager at 342 East Walnut Lane. (Photo by Jared Peterman)

A former plumber and restaurant worker, Williams had no idea what e-waste was before he began work as the warehouse supervisor at the PAR-Recycle headquarters at 342 East Walnut Lane. He is now well along on the learning curve and trains employees on how to deconstruct electronics, teaching them which parts and valuable and salvageable.

“I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a great group of people and our board is outstanding,” Williams said. “I can’t express how overwhelmed I am to be a part of this because I’m very dedicated to the PAR mission.”

It all began at Graterford

PAR-Recycle Works traces its roots to a group of men serving life sentences inside the State Correctional Facility at Graterford in Montgomery County. The group, which calls itself PAR ( People Advancing Reintegration) formed more than a decade ago and provides peer-to-peer mentoring to help ex-offenders get ready to re-enter the community.

Because of their long sentences, many of PAR’s members will never be able to practice the advice they give to those who are up for release. Nonetheless, they take their mentoring role seriously and work hard to teach such life skills as how to interview for a job.

Connecting to the outside

Jones met the PAR members when he was incarcerated at Graterford. He understood the importance of their pre-release mentoring, but also knew the group needed to connect with an organization on the outside that could provide transitional jobs for those being released.

Jones met with several people as he tossed around ideas for creating a business that would link up with the PAR group inside the prison. Among his advisers were his parents, George and Mimi Limbach, and The Rev. Tim Lyon, the minister at St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in Germantown, who is active in the prison reform movement. All now sit on the board of PAR-Recycle Works.

“We thought about a lot of things,” Jones explained. “From printing t-shirts to a delicatessen. We really wanted to make sure it was a viable business and would be able to give our guys the skills they need to get employment afterwards.”

Finding a viable business

Finally, they hit on recycling electronic waste, which would not only help the environment but which could also be profitable. For inspiration, they looked to eForce Compliance, a for-profit firm in the Gray’s Ferry section of Philadelphia, which has become successful through donations and planned-drive events.

Motherboards inside computers are valuable and one of the things that PAR-Recycling salvages and then sells. (Photo by Jared Peterman)

PAR-Recycle Works set out modest goals for itself as a non-profit organization when it opened for business 15 months ago.

Typically it makes use of a six- to eight-member crew, all formerly incarcerated people. They spend six to nine months with the organization, and then aim to find other work.

“The hope is to help train them or freshen up those skills that they already have and to help them realize how employable they are and to smooth the edges to make them more employable,” Jones explained.

So far, the organization has placed five or six employees into full-time jobs elsewhere, Jones said.

Pick-up at La Salle

On April 22, after a short drive from his warehouse in Germantown, Jones pulled his recycling van into the parking lot on La Salle’s campus near 20th Street and Olney Avenue. He had a six-member crew, all African-American men. Soon, the group was joined by The Rev. Lyons, an imposing man who stands more than six feet tall.

Working with La Salle student volunteers, including a public-relations class that helped publicize the Earth Day event, the men quickly filled up the van with discarded electronics from the university’s campus. When they finished, Jones told two workers to pick up whatever trash they could see in the parking lot.

“We always leave our event site better than we found it,” Jones said. “Whatever we can do for the environment, we will.”