The founder of CAAIR has said participants' wages go to cover the cost of their room, board and counseling. Credit: Shane Bevel for Reveal

Two men who were forced to work for free in a court-ordered drug rehabilitation program have filed a class-action lawsuit, alleging racketeering, human trafficking and labor law violations.

It is the second federal suit filed in a week against Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, or CAAIR, and the major poultry company where the men worked, Simmons Foods Inc.

The two lawsuits come on the heels of an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which found that judges across the country have ordered defendants into drug rehab programs that double as work camps for for-profit companies.

Reveal’s investigation focused on CAAIR, an Oklahoma program that puts hundreds of men a year to work slaughtering chickens at processing plants. The program spares men charged with crimes from prison.

They work for free, under constant threat of being sent to prison, on products for big-name brands, including Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, KFC, Walmart, PetSmart and Rachael Ray’s Nutrish pet food. The rehab program keeps their wages.

“We felt like nobody had ever listened to us,” said one of the plaintiffs, Lucas Miller-Allen, when reached by phone today. “When all of our drug courts send us there, it’s like you don’t exist. It feels like you’re forgotten, like you’re thrown away. Like slavery. You’re dreading waking up each day, working for free, for nothing.”

The new lawsuit claims violations of state and federal labor laws, which require employees to be paid at least minimum wage and overtime. It also claims that CAAIR’s founder, Janet Wilkerson, violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by “conducting the affairs of CAAIR through a pattern of holding persons to involuntary servitude.” Simmons Foods, a $1.4 billion company, conspired with Wilkerson, according to the suit.

“Drug and alcohol treatment was never the intended purpose of CAAIR,” the complaint reads. “CAAIR’s purpose was and is to provide income to itself and its founders while providing cheap labor to third-party agricultural interests affiliated with CAAIR.”

CAAIR “operates a forced labor camp – enterprises long outlawed in Oklahoma, in the United States and, indeed, throughout the civilized world,” the complaint says.

Miller-Allen and fellow plaintiff Bodhi Starns are seeking unpaid minimum wage and overtime pay, along with attorneys’ fees and other damages.

“While we cannot speak directly to the lawsuit, CAAIR is proud of the work it does every day in our voluntary recovery program, giving men a second chance to achieve a life other than addiction,” CAAIR CEO Janet Wilkerson said in an email.

“We intend to fully defend ourselves in court and believe the judicial process will bear out the many recent misrepresentations of our program and testify to the good work CAAIR has accomplished in changing lives,” she said.

Simmons Foods did not respond to requests for comment. 

The Oakland, California-based law firm Aiman-Smith & Marcy filed the complaint. It is unclear how the federal court will handle the two lawsuits. At least 25 men who went through CAAIR have signed on to the first class-action suit. According to the attorneys, one possibility is that the two lawsuits could be consolidated in federal court.

While CAAIR has grabbed the most attention, it isn’t alone in making participants work for free. Participants in similar rehab programs have worked at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Oklahoma, a construction firm in Alabama and a nursing home in North Carolina.

Other rehab programs also put defendants to work in chicken plants.

This post has been updated to include comment from CAAIR.

Was your rehab a work camp? Tell us about it.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@revealnews.org, and Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter:@amyjharris and @shoeshine.

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.