Wyandotte & Leavenworth

Leavenworth Electronics Recycling Factory gives inmates more than job skills

Updated: 2014-02-12T16:00:00Z

By MARK MORRIS

The Kansas City Star

Tucked in an airy, 38,000-square-foot warehouse about a mile off Kansas 7, one of the most successful electronics recycling programs of its kind works without much fanfare.

The 134 khaki-clad workers at the Leavenworth Electronics Recycling Factory work quietly at neat benches, stripping reusable parts off of old computers, printers and fax machines, tossing the bits into large blue bins. And after sorting and bundling, the material — about 4 million pounds a year — is stacked on pallets and sold to willing buyers, rather than being dumped into landfills.

The factory returns a handsome profit to its parent company, but its business model isn’t one that most recyclers ever could emulate.

Its workers — who make at most $1.15 an hour — are inmates at Leavenworth’s minimum-security prison camp. They voluntarily participate in one of the oldest programs in the federal corrections system that prepares offenders to re-enter society with real job skills.

Battered by many of the same economic forces that hurt traditional private business, federal prison industries have struggled with layoffs and low rates of return, according to a recent Justice Department audit. But that same study reported that the Leavenworth factory is the second most profitable of the nation’s seven federal electronics recycling factories.

And when measured against sales, the Leavenworth factory’s employment figures are far better than those of a Pennsylvania prison recycling center, which has the highest profit margin in the system.

But it’s not just old electronics that get a second chance at the factory, said Phil Sibal, a senior Federal Bureau of Prisons administrator in Washington, D.C.

“We like to say that our finished product is a worker who won’t come back,” Sibal said.

That’s an idea that appeals mightily to Ryan Meckenstock, who is finishing a 10-year sentence at Leavenworth for an Oklahoma identity theft conviction. Meckenstock has been doing data entry at the factory for about five years.

“It’s a huge benefit to me, and it teaches responsibility,” said Meckenstock, 41. “It’s all been very useful, making me feel confident about finding work when I get back.”

Recycling junk

Standing amid pallets stacked with obsolete computer equipment from federal offices in Nebraska and Maryland, Leavenworth factory manager Tim Moore acknowledged the electronic scrap business can be difficult.

It can be boom or bust, he said while giving a rare tour of his factory to a reporter.

“This is a rough industry,” Moore said. “We’re a glorified junkyard. We have long dry spells where we don’t get a lot of materials.”

Still, the Leavenworth factory has performed well, Sibal noted.

Last fall’s audit showed that between 2009 and 2011, the Leavenworth recycling factory returned a robust 33 percent profit margin to Unicor, the government enterprise that operates all federal prison industries.

Since then, its profit margin has grown to 52 percent, Sibal said.

Unicor opened the Leavenworth factory in 2007 during a difficult period in the history of its recycling business. A harsh federal audit in 2010 found numerous health and safety issues at many other Unicor recycling operations. But Leavenworth emerged largely unscathed, and with praise, in particular, for its industrial hygiene program.

By law, Unicor generally must do business only with other federal agencies or local governments and have a “minimal” impact on private business and labor.

The biggest piece of Leavenworth’s recycling business comes from the U.S. Department of Defense, which has scaled back its contracting with Unicor with the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And as a result of federal cutbacks and stricter measures to minimize competition with the private sector, only 7 percent of U.S. federal inmates are employed by a Unicor factory, the lowest percentage in the last 25 years.

Since 2009, according to a federal study, Unicor saved money by eliminating 6,500 jobs nationwide, or about one-third of its inmate workforce.

But Leavenworth outperforms there also. Almost 32 percent of the 420 inmates at the federal minimum-security camp, which sits outside the walls of the hulking penitentiary next door, are employed at the recycling factory.

Warden Claude Maye said benefits of the factory accrue to the institution in the form of fewer disciplinary problems and lower recidivism when the inmates complete their sentences.

“I wish I could have six or seven factories,” he said.

Reshaping people

The factory is much more than a business for the men who work there.

They volunteer for positions at the factory, which pays much more than the maximum 40 cents an hour they could earn doing traditional jobs assigned to all federal prison inmates, such as kitchen work, cleanup and landscaping.

And factory workers must commit 50 percent of their earnings to pay court-ordered restitution, assessments, fines or child support.

Meckenstock said factory hours are longer and more regular than those of traditional prison jobs. He said that has established a wholesome routine in his life that he hopes will continue after his release.

“When I go home, I’ll be used to going to work every day, rather than working an hour or two in the kitchen,” he said.

It’s certainly now routine for Darius Moss, 41, who has worked Unicor jobs for 15 years in four different prisons. In November 2017, he’ll be released after serving a 24-year sentence for drug distribution in Nebraska.

Moss said his greatest lessons haven’t come from learning a discrete technical trade. Rather, he said he’s learned the most from acquiring the “soft skills” of productive daily labor, such as getting along with co-workers, listening to the boss and showing up on time with the proper gear.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Moss said. “Working is part of my life now.”

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to mmorris@kcstar.com.

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