Jim Hendren, now the Arkansas Senate president pro tempore, used unpaid workers from a drug rehab program at his plastics company, Hendren Plastics, which has been ordered to pay back wages and damages. Credit: Danny Johnston/Associated Press

One of Arkansas’ top lawmakers says he has severed ties with a drug rehab program that forced participants to work for free in his plastics factory, the Associated Press reported today.

State Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren had used workers from the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program to partially staff Hendren Plastics, the business he founded with his father, Kim, who is also a state representative.

Former participants who were court-ordered into the program told Reveal that they worked full time without pay at Hendren Plastics, making dock floats that are sold at The Home Depot and Walmart. Hendren Plastics paid DARP for the work.

According to the AP, Hendren said his company ended its relationship with DARP after a lawsuit filed last week accused DARP and private companies of violating laws banning free labor.

The lawsuit came in response to an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting showing how drug rehabilitation centers across the country have become lucrative work camps for private industry. Three class-action lawsuits have been filed and series of government investigations have been launched since the story published.

At DARP, defendants worked for free under threat of prison. If they got hurt on the job, workers said they often were kicked out and sent to prison.

Participants told Reveal that about 20 workers from DARP worked at Hendren’s company at any given time. In 2011, the company had about 50 employees, according to a news report.

Hendren, a Republican, has called job creation his No. 1 priority in office. According to the AP, Hendren said his company paid $9.25 an hour plus overtime to the rehab program for the employees’ work but “didn’t know the details of the agreement between the nonprofit and the participants.”

In an interview with the KUAR radio station in Little Rock, Hendren said he thought the program was interesting  “because folks deserve a second chance, especially on nonviolent offenses, rather than taxpayers paying for them to sit in a prison cell.”

“Despite the fact that I see some value trying to help these kids get their lives turned around, it’s not worth the damage that can be caused to the company’s reputation when a couple of them go and get an attorney and start making unfounded charges,” he said.

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.