A lone man sits at a table outside the campus of CAAIR near Jay, Okla. Credit: Shane Bevel

One man in drug court said he was sent to a rehab program that forced him to collect dead chickens and throw them onto a heap of rotting carcasses.

Another defendant worked 12-hour days stacking pet food and was in so much pain he could barely use his hands. Other men hung live chickens on shackles as bird feces flew into their mouths.

Rather than getting these men addiction help, drug courts had sent them to programs that forced them to work for free in grueling, dangerous jobs.

In a new class-action lawsuit filed this week in Arkansas, lawyers for these men say that’s illegal.

The targets of the lawsuit: two rehab programs that operate along the Arkansas-Oklahoma border – Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery, and Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program. The programs put men to work for free in chicken processing plants and a plastic manufacturer, under threat of prison. Simmons Foods and Hendren Plastics each pay a discounted rate for cheap labor from the rehab programs, according to the complaint. The rehabs keep the money. The men are paid nothing.

“Those who are injured on the job are threatened with jail to coerce them into continuing to toil; those who are unable to work are actually jailed,” the complaint said. “The ever-present fear of incarceration ensures CAAIR’s residents report to work despite physical injuries and sicknesses that would otherwise prevent them from working.”

It is the third in a series of similar lawsuits filed in recent weeks in response to an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that found that courts around the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than work camps for private companies.

Reveal found men at CAAIR labored under threat of prison and were often injured in the chicken plants. The program is now the subject of investigations by three governmental bodies and the ACLU of Arkansas and Oklahoma.

CAAIR’s founders, who were poultry industry executives, modeled their program after DARP, which also has been dogged by complaints, including routine injuries.

The lawsuit alleges that both programs violate the Arkansas Constitution, which bans unpaid, forced labor. It also argues they violate state labor law, which requires employees to be paid minimum wage and overtime. It is seeking unpaid wages, overtime pay and other damages. The two previous suits were filed in federal court and allege the unpaid labor constitutes human trafficking and violates the 13th Amendment ban on forced labor.

Mark Fochtman entered the Washington County Drug Court in Arkansas in lieu of prison. A judge ordered him to rehab, telling him he would get treatment for his addiction at CAAIR. Instead, Fochtman worked 45-hour weeks for Simmons Foods on a chicken farm, collecting dead birds.

“On a typical day I collected over 100 dead birds,” Fochtman wrote in an affidavit. “That chicken house was full of thousands of decaying and rotting chickens covered in maggots.”

Fochtman echoed what many other participants told Reveal, saying program administrators routinely threatened the men with prison if they got hurt on the job. Under the arrangement with drug courts, men could be sent to prison if administrators booted them from the programs.

He said other men worked at the chicken plants, hanging live chickens on hooks. The birds routinely defecated in their mouths and faces, according to his affidavit.

After six months at CAAIR, Fochtman transferred to DARP. Once there, he was put to work at Hendren Plastics, working 60 hours a week on a production line. He filled large containers with plastic beads that were later cooked and turned into flotation platforms for docks and boat slips.

“The environment was very caustic working around melted plastics, and there was a high rate of injury among the employees,” Fochtman said.

Shane O’Neal was sent to CAAIR in 2014 by the Benton County Drug Court in Arkansas. He worked for free at a Simmons pet food facility, stacking bags of dry pet food on pallets.

“Constantly lifting heavy bags of pet food for 12 hours each shift took a heavy toll on my body,” O’Neal said in an affidavit. “For weeks I could not use my hands because they hurt too much. Instead, I had to lift the bags with my forearms to try and do the job.”

O’Neal was promoted while at CAAIR, according to his affidavit. Once he graduated, he stayed on at Simmons and learned he was making $16.40 an hour, much more than the flat rate Simmons paid the rehab for each worker.

Because the program forbids men from having cellphones, both said they had no way of making complaints while they were there.

Janet Wilkerson, the CEO of CAAIR, has told Reveal that the program plans to defend itself in court and “testify to the good work CAAIR has accomplished in changing lives.”

Donny Epp, a spokesman for Simmons Foods, said, “the claims by former CAAIR participants of their experiences are inconsistent with Simmons’ operational policies and core values.”

“There is another side of this story that has not been told about the hundreds of CAAIR participants who successfully completed CAAIR’s program and decided to continue to work at Simmons’ facilities,” Epp said.

Hendren Plastics did not respond to requests for comment.

“I’m very sorry that there are people that look at what we do in that way,” said DARP founder Raymond Jones. “We’ll just have to dig in and tell our side of the story and that’s what we’ll do.”

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.