Records show that courts send about 280 men to Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery each year, coming from throughout Oklahoma, along with some from Arkansas, Texas and Missouri. Credit: Shoshana Walter/Reveal

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters to 24 courts in Oklahoma on Monday, demanding that they stop sending defendants to a drug rehabilitation center that forces them to attend church and work for free in chicken processing plants.

The national nonprofit group, which advocates for the separation of church and state, said the court’s use of Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, or CAAIR, violates religious liberties established by the First Amendment.

Rather than getting drug and alcohol rehabilitation treatment, men in the rehab program “receive only a heavy dose of religious indoctrination,” the letter reads. “The depth of religious coercion in the CAAIR program is staggering.”

An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting earlier this month exposed how court-ordered rehab programs such as CAAIR have become little more than work camps for private industry.

In addition to the work, men at CAAIR are forced to attend Christian church services every Sunday for the first four months of the yearlong program and Bible study each week. Counseling sessions often consist of Christian-themed films and church sermons, according to the letter. Every few months, a Christian acting troupe called For His Glory Drama Ministries performs religious sketches at CAAIR that include an actor playing Jesus Christ, the letter said.

Men could be kicked out of the program and sent to prison if they didn’t participate in religious events, according to the letter.

The foundation told courts that sentencing defendants to religious events as a term of their probation is “patently illegal.” The group demanded that the courts offer defendants a secular alternative and cease using the program.

“A more religiously coercive environment is scarcely imaginable,” the letter says.

Judges across Oklahoma have sent hundreds of men to the faith-based program, which houses about 200 men at a time and puts them to work in chicken processing plants owned by a major poultry company.

CAAIR CEO Janet Wilkerson told Reveal in an interview this summer that her program is voluntary and that the required religious activity hasn’t been a problem.

“We’ve had Muslims here. We’ve had atheists here,” Wilkerson said. “But that’s OK. They might hear something. They’ll be OK.”

CAAIR’s administrators say faith is key to recovery.

“We believe in God and Jesus Christ here,” said Jim Lovell, CAAIR’s vice president of program management. “We try to let the clients know that they need a relationship with a higher power because they cannot do this on their own. No alcoholic or drug addict can be relieved of his alcoholism or drug addiction by any other human power.”

Several men in the program did object to the emphasis on religion.

“I don’t personally feel that God is going to solve all your problems,” said Terry McCracken, a defendant who was ordered to CAAIR. “We as addicts are born with a disease. And it’s going to take more than what they’re trying to force down your throat there to recover.”

When one man, who identified as pagan, complained about the religious programming, he said the rehab took away his phone privileges for a week, according to his wife, Jaclyn Malcom-Howell.

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.