CAAIR has a sprawling, grassy compound in northeastern Oklahoma. The one-year diversion program mainly relies on faith and work to treat addiction. Credit: Shane Bevel for Reveal

Three Oklahoma men filed a federal class-action lawsuit today alleging that they were modern-day slaves forced by a drug rehabilitation program to work for free in chicken processing plants.

An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting last week found that judges across the country have ordered defendants into rehab programs that double as work camps for for-profit companies.

The investigation zeroed in on Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, or CAAIR, an Oklahoma program that puts hundreds of men a year to work slaughtering chickens at processing plants owned by Simmons Foods Inc. The men work for free, under constant threat of prison, on products for big-name brands, including Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, KFC and Rachael Ray’s Nutrish pet food. The rehab program keeps their wages.

“By defrauding these men and providing virtual slave labor for a private corporation, CAAIR and Simmons are not only violating longstanding labor laws, they are violating basic standards of human decency and the core concepts underpinning our constitutional democracy,” the firm that filed the suit, Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, said in a statement.

The men are seeking more than $5 million. Their complaint alleges violations of state and federal labor laws, which require employers to pay employees at least minimum wage and overtime for their work. The men at CAAIR made nothing. The few who graduated from the one-year program were eligible for a $1,000 gift.

Among other legal issues, the lawsuit alleges that the program violates the 13th Amendment ban on slave labor and involuntary servitude. The complaint also alleges that the program constitutes human trafficking under Oklahoma state law and accuses CAAIR of committing fraud by not providing men with the drug and alcohol rehabilitation services they were promised.

An Oklahoma drug court sent Arthur Copeland, one of the plaintiffs named in the suit, to CAAIR in 2016. He thought he was going to a rehab program, according to the suit, but instead found himself hanging more than 60 live chickens a minute along an assembly line. Copeland was seriously injured in a chicken plant but was threatened with prison if he stopped working, according to the lawsuit. He eventually relapsed while in the program and was sent to prison.

Brad McGahey, another plaintiff, was ordered to CAAIR in 2010. His hand was crushed in a conveyor belt while working at a chicken plant. McGahey was featured prominently in Reveal’s online narrative and its podcast.

“I’m glad. Hell, I’m broke,” McGahey said of the lawsuit when reached by phone. “Them sorry bastards think they’re untouchable. I don’t want to see them ruin anyone else’s life.”

Brandon Spurgin, also named in Reveal’s story and as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, was injured in 2014 when a metal door at a plant fell on his head, causing spinal damage. CAAIR filed for workers’ compensation on his behalf and pocketed the payments.

“Maybe finally something gets done,” he said of the lawsuit. “If nothing ever happens, people are going to keep getting hurt up there.”

Janet Wilkerson, one of the founders of CAAIR and a former poultry company executive, told Reveal that wages from the men’s work go toward the cost of the program, including paying for their housing, food and classes. Of the three counselors on staff, only one is licensed. She said the program is a good alternative for those who cannot afford to pay for private rehab programs.

“Money is an obstacle for so many of these men,” she said. “We’re not going to charge them to come here, but they’re going to have to work. That’s a part of recovery, getting up like you and I do every day and going to a job.”

Reveal also found that men at CAAIR often performed unpaid work for Wilkerson and her friends and family. She called it community service.

The drug courts’ use of the program may also violate Oklahoma’s drug court law, according to its authors. It requires judges to rely on programs certified by the state. CAAIR is not a certified treatment program.

Dozens of men told Reveal that injuries were routine at the chicken plants. In several cases, CAAIR filed workers’ compensation claims on their behalf and collected the payouts. The Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission now has launched an investigation into potential fraud, which could lead to criminal charges.

Other state agencies also are looking into the program, including the Oklahoma attorney general’s office and the Oklahoma Department of Labor. The Tulsa drug court is reconsidering its relationship with CAAIR. And the Nutrish pet food brand is reviewing its supply chain.

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.