Candler Living Center, a facility for mentally ill and disabled adults outside Asheville, N.C., contracted with Recovery Connections for workers. It houses nearly 30 residents. Credit: Nancy Pierce for Reveal

Former patients of the drug rehab program Recovery Connections Community are demanding  back pay for years of free work they performed as caregivers in adult care homes across North Carolina, according to a new federal lawsuit filed against the program and care homes.

“For years, Defendants have escaped public oversight and accountability in profiting from unpaid labor performed by individuals struggling to overcome substance abuse and addiction,” according to the complaint filed Thursday. Rather than providing drug treatment, the lawsuit said Recovery Connection Community’s purpose was to operate as “a for-profit business by staffing adult care homes and other enterprises with labor.”

The lawsuit comes in response to an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting which found patients in the program regularly worked more than 80 hours per week in adult care homes without pay, while the program’s founders, Jennifer and Phillip Warren, used the rehab program to fuel a lavish lifestyle.

The two-year residential rehab program near Asheville caters to poor and desperate people struggling with addiction. To pay for their stay, participants must work full-time jobs and surrender their pay. Participants were often sent by courts and probation officers as a condition of their probation. Former participants told Reveal they received little addiction help, instead toiling for long hours at care homes and a chain of Zaxby’s restaurants across North Carolina.

The class action complaint, filed by former participants Kimberly Myris and Andrew Presson, alleges the program and more than half a dozen contracted businesses violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay participants for their work.

The businesses paid Recovery Connections a “sub-market rate” for the workers, despite knowing that rehab patients worked long hours and wouldn’t receive any pay for their work, the complaint said. The rates were so low, the complaint said, that they threatened to drive down wages for the entire industry. The businesses also were barred from hiring anyone who left the program early, leaving former participants immediately unemployed.

“The way they’re doing things is not ethical, it’s just not right how people are treated because they’re in a vulnerable position,” Andrew Presson said in an interview.

Presson and Myris said they worked excessive hours and endured months of abuse at Recovery Connections before leaving the program earlier this year. Presson worked 80 to 90 hours a week, while Myris worked an average of 119 hours a week in contract jobs without pay.

In addition to the grueling work schedules, Myris and Presson described squalid conditions and psychological abuse in the rehab program. At one of the rehab’s residences, neither the air conditioner nor heater worked, the water smelled of sewage, and holes in the floor allowed insects and feral cats to roam freely, according to the complaint. Program participants were required to turn over their food stamps to the Warrens, yet never had enough food to eat, Presson and Myris said.

During the program’s group therapy sessions, the Warrens verbally abused Presson “and required his co-residents to surround him in a circle and scream insults at him,” according to the lawsuit.

“Eventually it came to the point — this place is going to drive me nuts and it’s going to make me do something I don’t want to do,” Presson recalled he felt, before leaving the program earlier this year.

Jennifer and Phillip Warren did not respond to requests for comment. None of the contracted businesses responded to calls and emails for comment.

The lawsuit also alleges that Recovery Connections engaged in deceptive business practices by falsely advertising itself as a recovery program without providing “any bona fide substance abuse education, counseling, training, or other professional services,” the complaint said.

The Warrens sought out patients, knowing that their “struggles with substance abuse made them vulnerable to deceptive practices.” The suit also says the Warrens personally benefited from the unlawful labor arrangement, using the money to “fund elaborate vacations to Greece, France, French Polynesia, Puerto Rico, and New Orleans.”

The Department of Labor previously investigated Recovery Connections in 2013 and found that the program violated federal labor law by failing to pay participants minimum wage and overtime. Jennifer Warren refused to pay back wages to participants, but promised labor investigators she would comply with labor law in the future. The department never followed up, and Recovery Connections continued to put patients to work without pay for at least five more years.

At least 10 criminal and regulatory probes have been launched in response to Reveal’s reporting.

Recovery Connections is one of a number of drug rehab programs across the country that requires participants to work for for-profit companies, from chicken processing plants to a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Oklahoma.

Do you have experience with a program we should know about? Send us a tip, or if you’re a journalist, join Reveal’s local reporting network to begin reporting on a rehab near you.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at, and Shoshana Walter can be reached at 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.