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 firstname.lastname@example.org, and Shoshana Walter can be reached at email@example.com. Follow them on Twitter: @amyjharris and @shoeshine.