In a class-action ruling that could affect work-based rehabs across the country, a federal judge has ordered an Arkansas senator’s company and a drug rehab program to pay former participants more than $1.1 million in back wages and damages for work they performed without pay.

Participants enrolled at the DARP Foundation in Decatur, Arkansas, for help recovering from their addictions. But instead of receiving treatment, they were required to work full time without pay at Hendren Plastics, a factory owned by Jim Hendren, the Arkansas Senate president pro tempore. They worked on an assembly line, melting down plastic to make boat slips and dock floats sold at The Home Depot and Walmart. 

In his ruling issued Monday, District Judge Timothy Brooks ordered both Hendren Plastics and Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program, known as DARP, to pay back wages and damages to 172 rehab workers. According to a court order, Brooks said that Hendren and DARP used the program for financial gain and that both companies are required to follow the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act and pay participants at least minimum wage for their work.

“They were businesses that manipulated the labor market and skirted compliance with the labor laws for their own private ends,” Brooks wrote of DARP and Hendren Plastics, adding that people struggling with drug addiction are still entitled to wages. “Businesses that profit from the labor of non-incarcerated drug addicts must still comply with the (Arkansas Minimum Wage Act’s) strict requirements.” 

The program could not be reached for comment Monday. Hendren did not respond to requests for comment.

“I wasn’t in it for the money. I just wanted for them to be exposed,” said Mark Fochtman, one of the former residents who filed the suit. “They just need to treat people more like humans and less like a business. Recovery is not a business. You’re doomed to fail if you try to turn recovery into a business, and that’s what happened with this. I just hope they see what comes around goes around. They kind of got what’s coming to them.”

Former residents filed the lawsuit in 2017, following a Reveal investigation that found that DARP and other work-based rehabs often exploit participants and likely violate labor laws by not paying at least minimum wage for their work. At DARP, many participants were court-ordered in lieu of incarceration and had not yet been convicted of crimes. 

“There is no question,” said attorney Tim Steadman, who argued the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs. “This is a common-sense conclusion that people who are not in prison, they’re protected by wage and hour statutes.”

DARP essentially functioned as a temp staffing agency, with Hendren paying the program a flat rate for the workers at a cost far lower than he would pay for regular employees and other temp workers. “Its residents directly competed with private citizens in the Arkansas labor market for employment at Hendren,” Brooks wrote.

Hendren, meanwhile, found a “captive workforce” in the DARP workers, Brooks wrote. The Republican senator frequently touts his role as a business owner and job creator. “I’ve been creating jobs for over 20 years,” Hendren previously said on his campaign website. “A country can not survive if it can not feed itself, and make things.” 

But Brooks said Hendren’s use of DARP workers “displaced private-sector workers Hendren would have ordinarily paid a higher rate of pay.” Hendren did not have to pay Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes, federal and state unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation insurance.

Former participants told Reveal that they were housed in cramped metal buildings plagued by bedbugs, required to attend church services and served expired food. In addition to working at Hendren Plastics, participants previously worked at R&R Engineering Co. Inc., Simmons Foods and Western Alliance Inc. They worked long hours at Hendren’s company and incurred frequent injuries, including burns from molten plastic. Those who got hurt and couldn’t work were often kicked out of the program and sent to prison, former participants said. Others said they worked through the pain without adequate medical care.

“They just gave me some Neosporin and told me I’d be all right,” said Dylan Willis, a former participant who spoke to Reveal in 2017, saying molten plastic burned his face, arms and legs. 

Hendren Plastics canceled its contract with DARP following the filing of the lawsuit. Hendren Plastics and DARP have 30 days to file an appeal. If they do not, the former participants could receive back wages in about a month.

This story was edited by Matt Thompson and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @shoeshine.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.