Views of a Simmons Foods chicken processing plant along Highway 43 in Southwest City, Missouri. Credit: Shane Bevel

For years, Raymond Jones has built his businesses around drugs – first as a meth dealer, then as the founder of a nonprofit drug rehab called Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program.

Rather than providing treatment, Jones puts dozens of court-ordered defendants to work slaughtering chickens, and working factory jobs for local plastic, welding and chicken processing companies in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

The men and women work for free, under threat of prison. All their pay goes to Jones’ program. He even owns two Corvettes with the license plates “DARP-1” and “DARP-2,” according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma on behalf of seven former DARP participants.  

More from All Work. No Pay.

It is the second class-action lawsuit filed against the program prompted by an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. That investigation found that judges send defendants to drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers that are little more than work camps for private industry. Two other suits have been filed against a program modeled after DARP, Christian Alcoholics & Addicts In Recovery.

The program participants were “victims of a modern day forced labor scheme which existed virtually unnoticed for over a decade due to a combination of willful ignorance and enforced silence that was sanctioned by the courts and members of the faith community,” according to a complaint filed in the newest lawsuit.

The suit accuses the program and participating companies of human trafficking and numerous violations of state and federal labor law, including the failure to pay minimum wage and overtime. It also accuses the rehab and Jones of fraud and unjust enrichment.

Jones created DARP as “a pipeline for forced labor performed under threats of imprisonment and judicial punishment,” according to the suit.

“While represented as a treatment, rehabilitation, or recovery center, D.A.R.P., in reality, consists primarily of long hours of uncompensated contract labor alternated with isolated and squalid living conditions,” the suit says.

DARP participants have worked at R&R Engineering Co. Inc., Hendren Plastics Inc., Simmons Foods Inc., and Western Alliance Inc. (formerly Jer-Co Industries Inc.), all of which are named in the suit. Jones and Glenn Whitman, a pastor at DARP, also are named as defendants.

Hendren Plastics, owned by an Arkansas state senator, canceled its contract with DARP earlier this week following the filing of a similar lawsuit against the program.

When asked about the new lawsuit, Jones chuckled and said “our legal team will be all over this thing.” He declined to comment further.

Simmons Foods said the company has no direct relationship with DARP. It has previously said “we want to assure our customers, employees, and communities that we are prepared to use every resource at our disposal to vigorously defend the company.”

In addition to being forced to work for free, participants languished in horrifying conditions, where they experienced serious on-the-job injuries, contracted illnesses and received little medical care, according to the lawsuit and Reveal interviews with participants.

They were warehoused in cramped metal buildings, which were overrun with bedbugs that left participants with bleeding sores, according to the lawsuit. Expired food was served daily. They also were required to attend Christian church services, the lawsuit says.

It was one of the worst experiences of my life,” Tim Hyers, one of the plaintiffs named in the suit, told Reveal.

Hyers was ordered to DARP by his probation officer in Stephens County, Oklahoma.

Once there, he worked at DARP’s chicken processing facility, spending four hours a day picking up dead chickens and stuffing them into maggot-filled barrels, according to the lawsuit. He then cooked for 35 men in the DARP program, all without pay. Hyers worked through severe drug withdrawal, during which the lawsuit claims he received no medical care.

Kermit Troxel was ordered to complete a year at DARP by a judge in Cleveland County, Oklahoma, after he fell behind on court fines. The program made him work more than 63 hours a week as a welder at R&R Engineering Co., in Oklahoma. DARP collected his pay. None of it went toward his court fines.

While on the job, a piece of steel struck him in the eye, Troxel said, but he was scared to ask for help. Other men had been kicked out of the program after getting hurt on the job. He completed the program but continues to have trouble seeing out of one eye.

Lunches provided by the program consisted of bologna sandwiches and expired Little Debbie snack cakes, according to the lawsuit. For dinner, the suit alleges Jones served spoiled chicken he couldn’t sell from DARP’s chicken processing plant.

“I don’t eat meat now,” said Tammy Hacker in an interview with Reveal. She was ordered to DARP in 2014 and worked at the plants. “It was a complete nightmare.”

Kevin Hartman was suffering from a severe addiction to pain pills when he was sent to DARP by his probation officer in Stephens County, Oklahoma, according to the suit. Rather than getting drug treatment, Hartman was forced to work in a steel fabrication plant for Jer-Co Industries, now known as Western Alliance. Hartman, the suit says, suffered through serious drug withdrawal while on the job.

Arkansas State Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, the owner of Hendren Plastics, did not respond to calls for comment. He previously told the public radio station KUAR of Little Rock that he partnered with DARP because “folks deserve a second chance, especially on nonviolent offenses, rather than taxpayers paying for them to sit in a prison cell.”

A representative for R&R Engineering said a manager was unavailable to comment. The owner of Western Alliance did not return calls seeking comment.

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.