Drug court rehabs survive on forced labor
Judges across the country are ordering defendants into recovery centers that are little more than work camps for private industry, an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
The programs promise freedom from addiction. Instead, they’ve turned thousands of men and women into indentured servants, exploiting a nationwide push to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison.
The rehabs send defendants to companies large and small: a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Oklahoma, a construction firm in Alabama, a nursing home in North Carolina. The rehabs get paid. The participants do not.
Perhaps no rehab better exemplifies this allegiance to big business than Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, also known as CAAIR , in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma.
It was started in 2007 by chicken company executives struggling to find workers. By forming a Christian rehab, they could supply processing plants with a cheap and captive labor force while helping men overcome their addictions.
Defendants work in grueling conditions at chicken plants owned by Simmons Foods Inc., a company with annual revenues of $1.4 billion. They work alongside paid employees, churning out chicken products and pet food for some of America’s largest retailers and restaurants, including Walmart, KFC and PetSmart.
Reveal interviewed scores of former participants and employees, court officials and judges, and reviewed hundreds of pages of court filings and workers’ compensation records.
Among the findings:
— The program may violate the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery and allows forced labor only for people convicted of a crime. Many men sent to CAAIR have not yet been convicted and later have their cases dismissed.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Noah Zatz, a professor specializing in labor law at UCLA. “That’s a very strong 13th Amendment violation case.”
— The authors of Oklahoma’s drug court law believe it is illegal for judges to send defendants to CAAIR. The law requires drug courts to use programs that are certified by the state. CAAIR is not. Rather than professional addiction treatment, the program mainly relies on faith and work.
“That is insanity gone to sea,” said former state Sen. Dick Wilkerson, who wrote the law. “That’s illegal. They can’t do that. That is the law, and it has to be followed.”
— CAAIR administrators use the threat of prison to push defendants to work, even when they are injured. Men who were hurt on the job have been kicked out of CAAIR and sent to prison.
“They work you to death,” said Nate Turner, who spent a year at CAAIR. “They know people are desperate to get out of jail, and they’ll do whatever they can do to stay out of prison.”
— CAAIR routinely files workers’ comp claims on defendants’ behalf and collects the payments. By law, those payments are required to go to the injured worker.
“That’s fraudulent behavior,” said Eddie Walker, a former judge with the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission. “What’s being done is clearly inappropriate.”
Courts across Oklahoma and neighboring states send about 280 men to CAAIR each year. Some men say it changed their lives. But few ultimately finish. In 2014, 26 percent completed the program.
Instead of paychecks, they get bunk beds, meals and Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. They can meet with a counselor or attend classes on anger management and parenting. Weekly Bible study is mandatory. So is church. But the priority is clear to former employees and participants: Work overshadows everything else.
“Money is an obstacle for so many of these men,” said Janet Wilkerson, CAAIR’s founder and CEO. “We’re not going to charge them to come here, but they’re going to have to work. That’s a part of recovery, getting up like you and I do every day and going to a job.”
Wilkerson also put the men to work for her own needs. They remodeled her home and helped her daughter move. She called it community service.
Jim Lovell, CAAIR’s vice president of program management, said there’s dignity in work.
“If working 40 hours a week is a slave camp, then all of America is a slave camp,” he said.
Chicken plants are notoriously dangerous, and men in the CAAIR program said injuries were common at Simmons. Their hands became gnarled after days hanging thousands of chickens from metal shackles. One man said he was burned with acid while hosing down a trailer. Others were maimed by machines or contracted serious bacterial infections.
Many drug courts use CAAIR because there is a shortage of affordable treatment programs. Defendants can wait up to nine months to get into a residential program. At CAAIR, there’s no wait list and “it doesn’t cost the state of Oklahoma one penny,” said Pontotoc County Judge Thomas Landrith.
Brandon Spurgin was struggling with a meth addiction when the Stephens County drug court sent him to CAAIR in 2014.
He was working at the chicken plant one night when a metal door crashed down and split his head open. Even though he was in severe pain and had a dozen staples in his head, Spurgin kept working. If he didn’t, CAAIR could kick him out, and he would be sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“You’re just there to work, make them money,” Spurgin said. “I’d rather go to prison than do that again.”
Three years later, Spurgin has graduated from drug court but is in chronic pain and unable to work full time. CAAIR filed for workers’ compensation on his behalf and took the $4,500 in insurance payments. Spurgin said he got nothing.
Over the years, Simmons repeatedly has laid off employees while expanding its use of CAAIR. For some shifts, the plants likely would shut down if men in the program didn’t show up, according to former staff members and plant supervisors.
Simmons spokesman Donny Epp said the company doesn’t need CAAIR to fill a labor shortage.
“It’s about building relationships with our community and supporting the opportunity to help people become productive citizens,” he said.
But the CEO of Simmons has told CAAIR that he needed more workers and helped CAAIR expand. In 2015, the rehab opened another dorm. It was paid for by Simmons.
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