After Fred Barbee broke his ankle while working at a chicken processing plant in Arkansas, he expected time off to heal.

But he wasn’t in a normal workplace. A drug court judge in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had sent Barbee to a drug rehabilitation program called Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, or CAAIR. The program makes men work without pay at plants owned by Simmons Foods Inc.

Because Barbee couldn’t work, the rehab kicked him out. It filed a workers’ compensation claim and collected the $7,100 payout. Barbee got none of it.

Fred Barbee broke his ankle while working at a chicken plant in Arkansas. Credit: Oklahoma Department of Corrections Credit: Oklahoma Department of Corrections

By law, workers’ compensation is required to go to the injured workers. But CAAIR routinely files workers’ comp claims for men injured in the chicken plants and collects the payments, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found. CAAIR’s founders acknowledged it’s their standard practice.

“That’s the way it works,” said Janet Wilkerson, CAAIR’s founder. She said they keep the workers’ comp payments intended for the men to pay for the program’s food, housing and counseling costs.

“Yes, we did keep that,” she said. “Right, wrong or indifferent, that’s what happened.”

Workers’ comp experts said that’s wrong and illegal.

“If they (the workers) never received those benefits, that is insurance fraud,” said Philip Hood, commissioner of the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission. He has opened an investigation into CAAIR in response to Reveal’s report, which he said could lead to criminal charges.

“That sounds like something from the early 1900s. And this is going on right now? And how is it legal?” he said. “Them being ordered to work for free is nothing short of slavery.”

A former judge with the commission was shocked by what CAAIR was doing.

“That’s fraudulent behavior,” said Eddie Walker. “What’s being done is clearly inappropriate.”

A Reveal investigation published Wednesday showed judges are steering men and women from drug and other diversion courts into rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Experts said it could violate the 13th Amendment and state drug court law.

The potential workers’ comp fraud raises a third legal issue for CAAIR, which is based in northeastern Oklahoma and sends workers to plants in Arkansas and Missouri.

Many defendants in the rehab program are unaware they’re entitled to the payments. That’s because CAAIR requires the men to sign forms stating they are clients, not employees, and therefore have no right to compensation for injuries.

Poultry plants are notoriously dangerous, with one of the highest workplace injury rates in the nation. Men in the CAAIR program said workers routinely were injured in the plants and fired when they couldn’t work. Nine compensation cases have been filed for participants in the program. They were sprayed with acid, maimed by machines or threw out their backs on the job. After they left the drug rehab, the injuries often made their lives more difficult.

Jeffery Weaver got a hernia from hauling bags of chicken products at a chicken processing plant in 2014. Credit: Oklahoma Department of Corrections Credit: Oklahoma Department of Corrections

Jeffery Weaver got a hernia from hauling bags of chicken products at the plants in 2014. CAAIR filed for workers’ comp and collected more than $2,500. He got nothing, according to his family.

He got kicked out of the rehab a month later, court records show, and found himself back in front of a judge. The judge sentenced Weaver to seven years in prison. His mother, Lisa, said he’s expected to be released later this month.

That’s not right at all,” she said. “If I got hurt, I’d sure want my workers’ comp. Goodness gracious, it doesn’t sound right.”

Brandon Spurgin was working at the plant when a metal door crashed down on his head one night in 2014, damaging his spine.

Doctors put more than a dozen staples in his head. He thought he needed more medical attention, but he was scared to leave CAAIR. If he had, the drug court in Stephens County, Oklahoma, could have sentenced him to 15 years in prison, court records show.

“They’re just like, ‘Here’s some Tylenol. Can you get back to work yet? Can you go back to work?’ ” he recalled. “They don’t care. You’re just there to work, make them money.”

Spurgin continued working. CAAIR filed the workers’ comp claim on his behalf and collected more than $4,500 in compensation payouts. Spurgin never received any of the money. He eventually had surgery, remains in constant pain and can’t hold a full-time job.

After Fred Barbee broke his ankle in 2014 and left the program, CAAIR continued collecting his workers’ comp for four months, court records show. The program told its insurance provider that Barbee had returned to work at the Simmons plant, according to the filings with the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission. That wasn’t true.

Court officials in Tulsa gave Barbee one more try. But injured and still in the throes of meth addiction, Barbee failed. Drug court Judge Dawn Moody sentenced him to two years in state prison. He was released in July.

Three years later, Barbee still has pain in his ankle and walks with a limp, according to his mother, Marguerite. She said her son still struggles to live a stable life.

“Everybody makes mistakes. They need to know somebody cares,” she said. “As long as I get my ‘I love you and I’m OK’ – even though sometimes I don’t think he is – that’s all I could ask for.”

Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter 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 and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.

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.