A county welcome sign stands near the Simmons Foods chicken processing plant in Southwest City, Mo. Credit: Shane Bevel for Reveal

Note: This post is being regularly updated with responses.

Public officials, experts and even Rachael Ray’s pet food brand have spoken out to express their concern about the findings of our investigation into drug court rehabs that force defendants to work without pay at private companies.

The story focused on one Oklahoma program, Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, or CAAIR. Rather than get professional addiction treatment, defendants churn out chicken for some of America’s largest brands, including Simmons Foods.

Here’s a rundown of some of the response so far:

Four class-action lawsuits have been filed against two rehab work camps and the companies they work with, alleging participants were modern-day slaves and seeking back pay.

“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 first lawsuit in federal court, Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, said in a statement.

A second, similar suit followed days later. A third class-action suit has also been filed in Arkansas against CAAIR, the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program, Simmons and Hendren Plastics. A fourth suit by the American Civil Liberties Union was filed in federal court against DARP, Simmons, Hendren, R&R Engineering Co. Inc., and Western Alliance Inc. (formerly Jer-Co Industries Inc.).

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,” the ACLU lawsuit alleges.

The Ada Coca-Cola Bottling Co. suspended its use of workers from Southern Oklahoma Addiction Recovery, telling us that it takes “the concerns that have been raised seriously.”

Coca-Cola’s guidelines for its independent bottling plants prohibit forced labor.

“We have participated in the SOAR program because of the good we have seen it can do for people in our community and are hopeful we can work with SOAR to revise the terms of the program so that we can resume participation in the future,” the bottling company said in a statement.

The Arkansas Senate majority leader cancelled his company’s contract with a rehab work camp. 

Jim Hendren relied on unpaid workers from a drug rehabilitation center featured in our investigation. Hendren Plastics and the program now face a class-action lawsuit from former participants.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services is investigating SOAR for potential food stamp fraud. 

Our reporting found that the program required defendants to sign up for food stamps and then confiscated the cards. DHS officials said that is against the law.

Philip Hood, commissioner of the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission, has opened an investigation into CAAIR’s practice of filing workers’ comp claims on behalf of injured men and collecting the payments.

Hood said an investigation could lead to criminal charges. (Even though CAAIR is located in Oklahoma, many of the men work at chicken processing plants in Arkansas.)

Let me see if I understand: They are ordered to work in this plant for free. And if they are injured on the job, they cannot recover anything? But a claim is filed on their behalf, and the rehab receives the money? That sounds like something from the early 1900s. And this is going on right now? And how is it legal?

Them being ordered to work for free is nothing short of slavery.

A.J. Griffin, a Republican state senator who sits on Oklahoma’s opioid abuse commission, questioned why drug courts are using CAAIR and said she was investigating the program.

The use of a non-certified treatment program is certainly not congruent with the standards for Oklahoma’s drug court system as I have understood them. Treatment programs certified by Oklahoma’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services provide high quality treatment environments and should be used exclusively for treatment in Oklahoma.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters to 24 courts in Oklahoma demanding they stop sending defendants to a CAAIR.

CAAIR is not a drug rehabilitation program in any meaningful sense of the term; it is a forced-labor camp, shot-through with religious proselytization. For your drug courts to continue to send Oklahomans to CAAIR is a patent violation of the First Amendment.

The Oklahoma and Arkansas chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union have said they are investigating. 

From Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas’ legal director:

Those sentenced to CAAIR expecting reputable treatment were sold a false bill of goods. Instead of addiction treatment, victims of this and similar schemes found themselves forced to work with little to no pay in incredibly dangerous and inhumane conditions under threat of going to prison. This system allows corporations to profit on the backs of people our government claims to help. As we investigate this, it is important to consider how much the governments of Oklahoma and Arkansas knew about these abuses, and that they take steps to ensure no other people will fall prey to this scheme. 

The Tulsa drug court is currently reevaluating its use of the CAAIR program.

Drug court spokeswoman Heather Hope-Hernandez said drug court officials have no records of complaints from the participants about the program. “However, we are reviewing our relationship with CAAIR in light of the information reported in the article,” she said.

The drug court has about 20 participants in CAAIR at any given time, she said. The court will no longer send people to CAAIR while the review is conducted, according to The Frontier.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter says he is looking into CAAIR. 

A spokesman declined to provide details.

Nutrish, Ray’s pet food brand, said it would be contacting Simmons Foods Inc., the chicken company where CAAIR defendants work.

Nutrish declined to provide a copy of its policies.

A number of brands that also sell chicken from Simmons Foods remained silent.

PetSmart declined to comment. We also contacted the following companies for comment, but haven’t received anything yet:

  • KFC
  • Walmart
  • Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project and former chief of staff for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, took particular issue with the dangerous work at chicken plants.

This is as close to indentured servitude as you can get, in a very dangerous industry.

It’s one thing to send them to work in retail work to teach them how to do a 9 to 5. But poultry is one of the harshest jobs in America. These are really dangerous workplaces. It’s really unfathomable to me. I can’t imagine how this is legal.

Have a tip about CAAIR or other rehab programs that put defendants to work? Let us know.

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

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.