Re­port calls re­hab cen­ters lit­tle more than work camps

In­ves­ti­ga­tion shows ex­ploita­tion of na­tion­wide push.

Dayton Daily News - - NATION - By Amy Ju­lia Har­ris and Shoshana Wal­ter

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 pain and had 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.

CON­TRIB­UTED BY SHANE BEVEL /RE­VEAL

Sim­mons chicken farm along High­way 43 in South­west City, Mo., is one place judges are or­der­ing de­fen­dants to go for re­cov­ery. In­juries have been re­ported as com­mon at Sim­mons.

SHOSHANA WAL­TER / RE­VEAL

Chris­tian Al­co­holics & Ad­dicts in Re­cov­ery, also known as CAAIR, is lo­cated in Jay, Okla.

CON­TRIB­UTED BY RE­VEAL

Bran­don Spur­gin was strug­gling with a meth ad­dic­tion when a county drug court sent him to Chris­tian Al­co­holics & Ad­dicts in Re­cov­ery.

CON­TRIB­UTED BY RE­VEAL

Janet Wilk­er­son, founder and CEO of Chris­tian Al­co­holics & Ad­dicts in Re­cov­ery, shows off the pantry that feeds par­tic­i­pants in her pro­gram.

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