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.

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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 was a senior reporter and producer at Reveal, covering the criminal justice and child welfare systems. She's working on a book for Simon & Schuster about the failures of our country's addiction treatment system. At Reveal, she reported on exploitative drug rehab programs that require participants to work without pay, armed security guards, and sex abuse and trafficking in the marijuana industry. Her reporting has prompted new laws, numerous class-action lawsuits and government investigations. Her stories have been named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, Selden Ring and National Magazine Awards. She has also been honored with the Livingston Award for National Reporting, the IRE medal, the Edward R. Murrow award, the Knight Award for Public Service, a Loeb Award and Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting. Her Reveal podcast, "American Rehab," was named one of the best podcasts of the year by The New Yorker and The Atlantic and prompted a congressional investigation.

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. 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 a fellow with the Watchdog Writers Group at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and is based in Oakland, California.