Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer

Our members keep us going.

Jul 4, 2020

American Rehab Chapter 1: A Desperate Call

Co-produced with PRX Logo

In 1960s California, a cult leader mesmerized America by claiming to have discovered the cure for heroin addiction. His rehab ran on punishment and profits, putting participants to work and generating millions from their free labor. A new system of rehab was born. Over the decades, the model would be hailed by an American president and endorsed by judges across the country. Today, these rehabs are flourishing by turning people desperate for treatment into an unpaid labor force. As the opioid epidemic rages on, Reveal uncovers tens of thousands of people each year trapped in the gears of this rehab machine.

In this episode, Penny Rawlings is relieved to finally get her brother into rehab at a place called Cenikor. She doesn’t realize that getting him out of treatment is going to be the bigger problem. 

Dig Deeper

• Listen: The American Rehab podcast series
• Read: Reveal’s reporting on All Work, No Pay.
• Learn: American Rehab resources



Shoshana Walter: lead reporter

Laura Starecheski: reporter, series producer

Ike Sriskandarajah: reporter,  producer

Brett Myers: series editor

Kevin Sullivan: executive producer

Jim Briggs: original score, mix, sound design 

Fernando Arruda:  original score, mix, sound design 

Katharine Mieszkowski: contributing producer

Amy Julia Harris: contributing reporter

Al Letson: host

Najib Aminy: associate producer, additional mix

Amy Mostafa: production assistant, additional mix

Rosemarie Ho: fact-checker

Matt Thompson: editor in chief

Esther Kaplan: editor

Andy Donohue: editor

Amanda Pike: executive producer for tv and documentary

Narda Zacchino: text story editor

Gabe Hongsdusit: art direction and layout design  

Sarah Mirk: art direction and web producing  

Claire Mullen: mix and production help 

Hannah Young: director of audience

Byard Duncan: engagement reporter

David Rodriguez: community engagement

Original art by Eren K. Wilson

Special thanks to WHYY in Philadelphia


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Back in March, we were about to bring you a project we've been working on for years called, American Rehab. Our reporters have been investigating a dark corner of the rehab industry, but just before we were about to launch, another public health emergency reshaped all of our lives. We shifted gears to cover the coronavirus outbreak. All the while, we continued reporting on the opioid epidemic, which has gotten even worse during the pandemic with dozens of states reporting a spike in overdoses. Today, we bring you that story, which we're going to tell you over the next six weeks. We start back in 2019 with a woman named Penny Rawlings. She just had a long sleepless night.
Penny Rawlings: Well, I threw up until about five o'clock in the morning, cried, my husband tried to calm me down, tried to get me to go to bed. I finally fell asleep about 5:30 and I got up at 8:00.
Al Letson: Penny was not sick with a bug. She was sick because she had just read a story that made her physically ill with a combination of fear and guilt, and she needed to contact a reporter.
Penny Rawlings: I was like, "I got to get ahold of this lady. I got to tell her that she's on the right track, that this isn't right. People need to know about this."
Al Letson: The lady Penny was trying to reach was my colleague, Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter, who we all call, "Sho". Eventually, Penny found Sho on Twitter and they got on the phone.
Penny Rawlings: And it was your article.
Penny Rawlings: I thought my knees were going to buckle underneath me when I started reading that.
Al Letson: Sho's story was about a drug rehabilitation center called, Cenikor, A place Penny had just sent her brother, Tim Rowe.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Could you tell me what happened?
Penny Rawlings: Okay. So I'm 51. My brother's 46. He is skilled trade, had a good job, owns his own home, cars, boats, motorcycle, you know...
Al Letson: Penny and her brother, Tim, live in Dayton, Ohio. They grew up right outside the city.
Penny Rawlings: If you watch the news, Dayton, Ohio is pretty much the meth and heroin capital right now. It's really bad here.
Al Letson: Tim used to have a good job fixing up gigantic printing presses, and he used to live with his wife and three kids. Then in 2010, he had surgery on his knee and his foot. His doctor prescribed pain pills afterwards. When those ran out, he turned to heroin.
Penny Rawlings: He overdosed five times I found out. Two of them he died. [Crosstalk 00:02:45].
Penny Rawlings: ... and they brought him back- [crosstalk]
SHOSHANA WALTER: Two of them, he died?
Penny Rawlings: They brought him back with Narcan.
Al Letson: Narcan, the overdose reversal drug. Penny wanted to save Tim. She tried to be there for his kids and his wife. She found him an attorney. She answered his late night calls, but she'd reached her limit.
Penny Rawlings: I had pretty much cut my brother out of my life three years ago, and we were very close and I told him, "If you don't get clean, I will not help you anymore. I'm done." And I said, "Do not come to my house unless you're going to knock on the door and say, "I need help."
Al Letson: And then Sho tells us when Tim did come knocking, Penny was there.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Penny and Tim, both agreed he should get out of Dayton and go some place where he didn't have so many connections to drugs. That's when Penny ended up talking to Cenikor about its longterm inpatient rehab program. What Cenikor told her sounded really good like in this commercial...
Speaker 4: I was lost in my addiction.
Speaker 5: Life was spinning out of control.
SHOSHANA WALTER: ... with residents strolling shady grounds and swimming laps in a sparkling blue pool.
Speaker 6: I was going to die. I was until I found Cenikor with treatments tailored to me that truly worked.
Speaker 7: With the counseling I needed.
Speaker 5: Cenikor understands how hard addiction is.
Speaker 8: Cenikor can help you right now. We've improved the lives of over 100,000 people with addiction issues like yours. We're affordable, we understand and we're serious about your recovery. Let us help you get out of the pain and helplessness.
Penny Rawlings: They told me that my brother would be getting three group sessions a week and two one-on-one sessions a week with a counselor, and I had to pay $3,000... Well, almost $3,000 upfront to send him there.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Penny handed over her credit card number. Tim got on a plane and made it to Baton Rouge where he planned to stay for the next eight months.
Penny Rawlings: They told us that it was eight months. He would be there eight months, which is a lie.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Cenikor's program was actually two years long.
Penny Rawlings: Well, then I found out he was not allowed to talk to us. We were not allowed to have any contact with them.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Not until Tim had been there at least three months; no phone calls, no visits and there was one more issue, a big one. Penny says a Cenikor staff member had told her that on the job training was part of the program.
Penny Rawlings: I feel pretty thorough. I wanted to know what the program was, what they did. I wanted to make sure he was getting counseling. You know what I'm saying? I was very concerned about this work thing, and she's like, "Oh no, they only work 20-30 hours a week." They work them seven days a week, seven days a week.
Al Letson: Without any pay. Sho has gone deep into the world of rehabs that function more like temp agencies than treatment centers. Years before the pandemic, she found rehabs that send people to work at assisted living facilities and at chicken plants to supply KFC and Popeye's. After Sho and our former colleague, Amy Julia Harris first broke these stories in 2017, they were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. In the spring when states were locking down, Cenikor was still sending people to work where they faced exposure to coronavirus and they often didn't get gloves or masks. At night, they came home to sleep in dorms with other participants. And again, the people getting this so-called treatment, they don't get paid. The deeper Sho dug, the more people like Penny would turn to her looking for answers.
SHOSHANA WALTER: I've gotten dozens and dozens of calls like these from desperate family members and people stuck inside these rehabs. So when I hung up with Penny, I called Tim.
Tim Rowe: Well, from what I read, it's a tough program. It's not like your traditional 12-step rehab or whatever. So I thought, "Well, I'll try it. It's something different." Well, it's definitely different.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Tim says he was expecting a top notch facility. He saw the pool on Cenikor's website and packed five pairs of swim trunks. But when he got to Baton Rouge, the facility was one wing in a mostly abandoned former hospital. The pool water was a green swampy color and there was almost no time for counseling. After orientation, Cenikor sent him straight to work. They had him doing electrical work.
Tim Rowe: I'm not even a electrician.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Did you get any training on how to do that?
Tim Rowe: No.
SHOSHANA WALTER: They had him making fixed steel cables for shipping yards.
Tim Rowe: I was making those cables. I was slinging them over my shoulder and this big spool that is as big as a car, I had to pull it out 200 feet. I would be so sore the next day.
SHOSHANA WALTER: They sent him to a call center where he sat in a cubicle alongside paid workers. On his first day there, he heard a thump in the bathroom. He tried to get a supervisor to check it out. But in the end, Tim says he was the one who pushed the door open and found a worker there unconscious with a syringe. The guy had overdosed.
Tim Rowe: I'm still in a treatment facility and they put me to work in a job where people are on drugs. I was told that, "You would help me find a job." I wasn't told that I'd be just thrown into a van and hauled off to some job and be told that like it or not, I have to do it.
Tim Rowe: All they do is just work the dog shit out of you and you don't get paid.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Cenikor was keeping all of Tim's wages. And then, there was the treatment Tim got. It seemed to work for some of the people at Cenikor, but to Tim, it was like nothing he'd ever seen.
Tim Rowe: It wasn't very straightforward at all like a 12-step based program or a faith based program with religion.
SHOSHANA WALTER: The treatment was based on strange methods squeezed into the few waking hours he had left after work.
Tim Rowe: They shaved my head when I was in there.
SHOSHANA WALTER: If you said the wrong thing...
Tim Rowe: "Is that non-support? Go have a seat in the verbal chair for non-support."
SHOSHANA WALTER: If he broke one of the many, many rules...
Tim Rowe: The verbal chair, that's where I would sit with my hands on my knees and I'd have to stare straight ahead... [crosstalk 00:09:48].
SHOSHANA WALTER: The staff and other participants with yell at him or make him talk to himself in the mirror.
Tim Rowe: That was called, mirror therapy.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Tim was learning a new Cenikor language. He had to stare at his reflection and repeat what he did wrong and how we'd fix it.
Tim Rowe: "I, Tim R., have a consistent behavior of talking to..." "I, Tim Rowe, have a consistent behavior of being late to the floor..." "My positive solution is to stop talking..." [crosstalk] "... solution is to set my alarm..." "I, Tim Rowe, have a consistent behavior..." and you just have to keep saying it over and over and over and over.
SHOSHANA WALTER: For how long?
Tim Rowe: However long they decide. Anytime you ever questioned it, I would be told that it's part of the treatment.
SHOSHANA WALTER: After just a few weeks of this, Tim felt broken. He wondered what could possibly fix him. The answer from everyone, the staff, the other people in the program was always Cenikor.
Tim Rowe: There were some times where I thought I was going crazy.
Tim Rowe: It was confusing. I wasn't sure of myself. I didn't know how to act. I didn't know how... I was scared to think because everything I did was wrong.
SHOSHANA WALTER: When Tim's sister, Penny finally reached him, she says, "It seemed like Cenikor was brainwashing him."
Penny Rawlings: So the two times that he did call here, he was only allowed to talk to us on speaker phone. Okay? [crosstalk] and somebody was with him. So he was like, "Oh, yeah. It's great. It's really great. The food's great." He kept saying, "The food's great," and I'm like, "Why does he keep saying that?"
SHOSHANA WALTER: Tim just didn't sound like himself.
Penny Rawlings: He was like, "Yeah, just check it out on Cenikor. Go check it out online." Well, he was trying to tell us something was going on without them knowing. You know what I mean?
SHOSHANA WALTER: Penny did check it out online. She read my reporting. By this time, I co-reported a story investigating Cenikor, showing how dozens of people getting treatment there have been horribly injured at work; broken backs, mangled hands. Somebody had even died at a Cenikor job site in the nineties. I'd written about the millions of dollars Cenikor was making off this program by sending people to work at job sites for companies like Exxon and Shell. After my stories came out, Shell emailed me that they didn't find evidence that Cenikor participants had worked there and Exxon denied it, but we confirmed that subcontractors for those companies did use Cenikor workers? I tried to interview Cenikor's CEO back then. He wouldn't talk to us on tape. When Penny learned how Cenikor was sending its participants to work, she knew she had to get Tim out. After that sleepless nights spent throwing up, she started calling Cenikor at 8:00 AM.
Penny Rawlings: Couldn't get through, couldn't get anybody to answer a phone until about 11:30, then I had to call the main Cenikor place and go literally crazy to get them to get me transferred to Baton Rouge and make somebody answer that phone.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Penny also called the police and asked them to go check on Tim. An officer went to Cenikor and told him his sister could fly him home that day, but Tim was surrounded by Cenikor people and he told the officer he was fine. He was too afraid to leave. He ended up sneaking out when no one was looking. He walked out into Baton Rouge, a place he'd never been with no money and no ID. One of the first open businesses he found was a Comfort Inn. He convinced the woman at the front desk to let him call Penny. She got him on a flight to his mom's house in Florida. When I talked to Tim, he'd been out just a couple of days. How does it feel to be out here?
Tim Rowe: It feels good. It feels good. Yeah. I'm just sitting here. I'm looking up at this guy and just kind of walking and talking. I haven't been able to talk about any of this-
Tim Rowe: ... because you don't do that at Cenikor. You don't get that kind of therapy. You get work therapy, whatever the hell that is.
SHOSHANA WALTER: "Work therapy, whatever the hell that is." That's my first question. I have more. Penny does too.
Penny Rawlings: Yeah. No, I'm really serious. I really want you guys to... There has to be laws being broke here. People working like that. That's slave labor. We outlawed slavery. I can't wrap my head around it. I can't be the only person.
SHOSHANA WALTER: No, you're definitely not the only person.
Al Letson: Sho's been investigating this story for years to get answers to some pretty basic questions.
SHOSHANA WALTER: How many programs like Cenikor are out there? How many people end up in these programs and where did this idea even come from?
Al Letson: Over the next six weeks, we're going to track down the answers. This is, American Rehab.
Speaker 10: The best thing that I've ever seen for the right people, last chance people. If you don't take advantage of this, you're never going to see sunshine again for the rest of your life.
Al Letson: Each episode will bring us closer to the truth. Because it is cult-like.
Speaker 11: They had pig masks on, had bars of soap and brushes hanging from their necks.
Al Letson: Every story we hear, every document we uncover lays another tile in the mosaic.
Speaker 12: Look, I have 45 years over my head. So I didn't care if they told me to jump through a flaming hula hoop and eat a bucket of shit. I was going to eat some shit, jump through some fire.
Al Letson: Sho teams up with reporters, Laura Starecheski and Ike Sriskandarajah. And the story, it takes turns we could never have imagined.
Speaker 13: And they threw me on the floor and they put the gun in my face.
Speaker 14: You're kidding. This is terrible. [crosstalk]
Speaker 13: Oh, yeah.
Speaker 14: This was not what I was expecting you to tell me.
Speaker 13: Well, this is the truth.
Speaker 15: They'll be brainwashing because they brain is dirty.
Speaker 16: That has a positive connotation to you?
Speaker 15: Yeah.
Al Letson: From a cult, to a prison, to the White House.
Speaker 17: I was glancing through your Cenikor booklet and I liked the very first sentence I read, "In all the years that Cenikor has been in business rehabilitating lives, we have found that nothing works as well as work itself."
Al Letson: We uncover a shadow workforce.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Hey, Shay. My name's Shoshana Walter. I'm a reporter with Reveal. I'm calling up various low cost rehab programs...
Al Letson: A workforce of tens of thousands of people working without pay or for pennies on the dollar, even as the pandemic ramped up.
Speaker 18: They don't enforce social distancing or anything like that. They were making us go to work. You're supposed to wear gloves, but they didn't have any gloves.
Al Letson: This is, American Rehab, the story of people desperate for treatment trapped in the gears of a rehab machine. This story is way too big for a single episode of Reveal, so you heard that right? We're doing something special. Over the next six weeks, we're going to dedicate Reveal to telling this story and exposing this truth. It's a wild ride and believe me, you don't want to miss a single episode. The first question we answer: where did all of this begin? That's coming up in chapter two, "Miracle On The Beach."
Speaker 19: [inaudible] We can take credit for literally getting thousands and thousands and thousands of people off of crippling addiction, single addiction. We have done that. We've done it here.
I didn't know it was going to turn into what the fuck it did, man, going on beating up on people, man, and guns and rattlesnakes in mailboxes.
Al Letson: You can listen to that story right now in Reveal's podcast feed. The American Rehab reporting team: Shoshana Walter, Laura Starecheski, and Ike Sriskandarajah. Red Myers is our editor. Laura is our lead producer and produced this episode. Amy Julia Harris helped us report this story from the beginning and launched the project. A.J., we miss you so much. Seriously. We had additional editorial support from Nars Aquino, Andy Donahue and Esther Kaplan and production help from WHYY in Philadelphia. Fact checking by Rosemarie Ho and Victoria Bareneski is our general counsel. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Our production team includes: the [inaudible 00:19:32], Katharine Mieszkowski and Amy Mostafa. Our theme song, "Lifeline," is by my man, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, Arruda. They composed and performed all the music for, American Rehab. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief and our executive producer's Kevin Sullivan.
Support for Reveal's provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, The John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The Heising Simons Foundation, The Democracy Fund and The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.