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Jul 29, 2020

American Rehab Chapter 6: The White Vans

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Reveal’s American Rehab exposes how a treatment for drug addiction has turned tens of thousands of people into an unpaid shadow workforce.

Before sunrise, a line of passenger vans heads to job sites across Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They carry squads of unpaid laborers. 

The drug rehab Cenikor didn’t want to show us where they were sending participants to work. So Reveal reporters Shoshana Walter and Laura Starecheski followed the vans to find out. 


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



Reporting team: Shoshana Walter, Laura Starecheski and Ike Sriskandarajah

Chapter 6 reporting and production: Laura Starecheski and Shoshana Walter

Series producer: Laura Starecheski

Edited by: Brett Myers

Production manager: Mwende Hinojosa

Production and mix assistance: Najib Aminy, Amy Mostafa, Katharine Mieszkowski and Claire Mullen

Original score, mix and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Special thanks: WHYY in Philadelphia for production help

Original art by Eren K. Wilson

Other: Reporting help from Amy Julia Harris and Heidi Swillinger; web design by Gabriel Hongsdusit and Sarah Mirk; fact checking by Rosemarie Ho; editorial support from Andrew Donohue, Esther Kaplan and Narda Zacchino.

Support for Reveal is 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 FoundationDemocracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.


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: Code Switch tackles race and identity frankly and without fear. It's a podcast from NPR that makes all of us part of the conversation because we're all a part of the story. Find Code Switch wherever you get your podcasts.
Laura Stareches...: Hey, this is reporter Laura Starecheski. Reveal provides independent journalism. We're a nonprofit newsroom supported by listeners like you. Become a member and we'll send you a Reveal face mask with the word "Fact" embroidered on it as a special thank you gift.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We're picking up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with Chapter Six of American Rehab, The White Vans. We left off last time with the story of how mass incarceration helped build a prison to rehab pipeline through the 1980s and 90s, a steady supply of participants getting court-ordered to attend Cenikor and work, but not get paid. Our reporter Shoshana Walter asked for a tour of the Cenikor program, but Cenikor said, "No." They didn't want to show us what kind of work participants are doing. They didn't even want us to meet any current participants in the program.
Shoshana Walter: But we knew that Cenikor workers were scattered all over Baton Rouge, at warehouses and kitchens, on construction sites, alongside regular workers.
Al Letson: And the Cenikor workers were not getting paid.
Shoshana Walter: So, in March of 2019, Laura Starecheski and I decided to head out into Baton Rouge to find them.
Shoshana Walter: Seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.
Laura Stareches...: Perfect. You're good. All right, so let's try, where do you want to try first?
Shoshana Walter: Tony Seafood, maybe?
Shoshana Walter: I have a couple of sources inside Cenikor who leaked documents to me and told me about businesses that use cynical workers. So we've got a list of recent job sites. It's a spreadsheet of a bunch of businesses in town where Cenikor participants go up to 80 hours a week for what Cenikor calls work therapy.
Laura Stareches...: Alligator meat, frogs legs, turtle meat, crawfish pies.
Laura Stareches...: Which means their treatment could be selling live catfish and turtle meat here at Tony Seafood.
Laura Stareches...: Hi, we're just doing a story on the Cenikor Foundation. And we heard that they worked here.
Speaker 4: Who?
Laura Stareches...: The Cenikor Foundation?
Speaker 4: No, they used to.
Laura Stareches...: Oh, they used to.
Speaker 4: They haven't been here.
Laura Stareches...: Next door. There's a big factory, Louisiana Fish Fry. We'd heard Cenikor sent people there too.
Shoshana Walter: Louisiana Fish Fry.
Laura Stareches...: People taking breaks right there.
Shoshana Walter: Inside the Louisiana Fish Fry building, they make huge quantities of Cajun seasoning. We walk up to one of the workers in the parking lot. Like how often do folks from Cenikor work here?
Speaker 5: Oh, I'm not really sure. Because everybody wear the same uniform. So, you know, you kind of really can't tell one from another.
Shoshana Walter: The main difference is invisible. The Cenikor workers aren't making any money.
Laura Stareches...: On the east side of town, across the street from a Waffle House, they work at a business that's just called [Nodoco] on the spreadsheet. We have no idea what this place is.
Shoshana Walter: It looks like a big warehouse with a giant doorway open on the side. There are a few workers standing around.
Laura Stareches...: I grabbed my headphones, recorder, and big fuzzy microphone. We hop out of the car and go over.
Shoshana Walter: Hey, you guys. We're reporters. We're doing a story on Cenikor. And we heard that Cenikor workers work here. And we are just wondering.
Speaker 6: Yeah, yeah they're in the back.
Shoshana Walter: Oh, they're in the back?
Speaker 6: Yeah. Yeah. Come on, let's go.
Shoshana Walter: Yeah.
Laura Stareches...: This was an older guy, but maybe the fastest walker I've ever seen.
Shoshana Walter: We follow him into the warehouse. These giant fans are worrying high up overhead.
Laura Stareches...: It's a lighting and electrical supply company, industrial shelves crammed full of supplies go almost all the way up to the ceiling.
Shoshana Walter: And our fast walker passes the baton to [Fred 00:04:11].
Speaker 6: [Fred 00:00:04:11].
Shoshana Walter: Hi.
Fred: Hi.
Shoshana Walter: It's Shoshana. Nice to meet you.
Fred: Hi. Nice to meet you.
Shoshana Walter: This is Laura.
Laura Stareches...: Thank you so much.
Fred: Hey Laura, how you doing?
Shoshana Walter: Good, how are you?
Laura Stareches...: Good.
Fred: What can I do for you?
Shoshana Walter: We're reporters with Reveal, we're working on a story about Cenikor and we heard that, oh sorry, Cenikor workers were working here and we just wanted to know more about it.
Fred: Oh, okay. Well actually...
Shoshana Walter: Fred gestures to two men behind him, they're wearing neon orange tee-shirts. They're standing about 20 feet away. These are two Cenikor workers. We wave to each other.
Laura Stareches...: I can't quite see what they're doing. We make eye contact, but we're not close enough to give them our names. And in this moment, I have this self aggrandizing fantasy that they'll see all my recording equipment and piece it together. We're journalists. We want to tell the world who they are and whatever's happening to them. They'll find some way to get a message to us.
Fred: Well actually, [Joey 00:00:05:16], my supervisor, is who you need to speak to.
Shoshana Walter: Oh okay.
Fred: Let me go, let me go, bring you up there to him. But he's actually, he's part of the family, this is [Nodoco] and he's a [Noto 00:00:05:26].
Laura Stareches...: Oh, really?
Shoshana Walter: Fred steers us in the exact opposite direction from the two workers. We have to talk to the boss, he says. We follow him through a door, into a front office full of cubicles.
Fred: They're reporters and they're doing an article on Cenikor and how we are using it.
Shoshana Walter: An older white guy, lean and neatly dressed, strides up to us. Light blue jeans, short sleeve shirt. He crosses his arms.
Speaker 8: I'm the lawyer.
Shoshana Walter: Very good. You're the right person.
Speaker 8: I'm the right person to say, "No." Yeah, we don't, that's not something...
Shoshana Walter: If you were or someone were to ask the guys who are here, if they are interested.
Speaker 8: They don't have the authority. It's Cenikor that would have to get permission.
Shoshana Walter: For them to talk?
Speaker 8: And those guys would have to as well.
Shoshana Walter: Okay.
Speaker 8: We don't do that. It's a privacy issue and we honor people's privacy.
Shoshana Walter: Yeah, I understand.
Speaker 8: Yeah and that would be really for any of our employees. We just don't do it.
Shoshana Walter: Well, maybe...
Shoshana Walter: We didn't want to violate anyone's privacy. We tried to ask more questions, but the lawyer said he was going to call the sheriff if we didn't get out. So, we got out. We even reached back out to them later and the company wouldn't comment.
Laura Stareches...: We still wanted to hear from Cenikor workers themselves, to give them a chance to tell us if they love the program, if they hated it. We needed to hear it from them.
Shoshana Walter: So the next morning, we wake up before dawn with a new plan.
Laura Stareches...: All right. It's only nine minutes away.
Shoshana Walter: Great.
Shoshana Walter: We go to Cenikor's residential treatment facility, where the workers live.
Shoshana Walter: Like, what do we do when we get to Cenikor? Like how close do we park?
Laura Stareches...: I don't know.
Laura Stareches...: It's early, about 5:30 in the morning. Sho's clutching a huge coffee cup. We're the only car around and we parked down the block.
Shoshana Walter: So like, park down here facing that way.
Laura Stareches...: Exactly.
Shoshana Walter: That's a good idea.
Shoshana Walter: Every morning before 6:00 AM, unmarked white passenger vans, full of rehab participants, pull out of the Cenikor parking lot. The vans go to job sites all over Baton Rouge.
Laura Stareches...: We're going to follow a van, see where it goes and try to talk to the people inside. So we wait. 10 minutes go by there.
Shoshana Walter: Is there another entrance and exit?
Laura Stareches...: I don't think so.
Laura Stareches...: Twenty.
Laura Stareches...: There's a van.
Laura Stareches...: One of the big white passenger vans pulls out of the Cenikor parking lot. It has no Cenikor logo on the side, no markings of any kind. It just says, "Vehicle number 20" on the back. And we can't see inside. We start following it.
Laura Stareches...: Why are there two cars all of a sudden, in between us and the van.
Shoshana Walter: We're immediately paranoid that they know our plan and are trying to stop it.
Shoshana Walter: There were no cars a minute ago. Why did that happen?
Laura Stareches...: Yeah, that's weird.
Laura Stareches...: The van pulls onto the highway.
Shoshana Walter: Are they getting off at the next exit?
Laura Stareches...: I can't. I can't see.
Laura Stareches...: A couple more cars pull between us and them. And we lose the van.
Laura Stareches...: Are they still in the right lane?
Shoshana Walter: I don't know. All we can do is try to see if they're still on here because if they got off, then we're kind of screwed.
Laura Stareches...: This is the point where Sho jams the gas pedal to the floor and passes a whole line of cars.
Laura Stareches...: My god, you're amazing.
Shoshana Walter: Yes.
Shoshana Walter: The van exits the highway. We're twisting and turning through residential neighborhoods. Then it gets more rural. It's still dark out.
Shoshana Walter: I wonder where we're going.
Shoshana Walter: They make a turn. We make a turn. Then all of a sudden, the van pulls over on the grass next to a chain link fence. We can see now that it's mostly empty. There's just a driver and a passenger.
Laura Stareches...: Okay. What do I do?
Shoshana Walter: Just pull up, I think and try to talk to them.
Laura Stareches...: Oh yeah. Here, roll down.
Shoshana Walter: Hi. How are you all doing?
Speaker 9: How you doing?
Shoshana Walter: Good. How are you?
Speaker 9: All right.
Shoshana Walter: We're reporters with Reveal. And we were just wondering where you guys are going, what you're up to.
Speaker 9: What's that?
Shoshana Walter: We're reporters with Reveal and we were just hoping to talk to you about Cenikor and what you guys are up to.
Speaker 9: Oh, oh. We're doing good. Oh, I don't know exactly what else to say. Honestly, off record.
Shoshana Walter: That's all we can share with you from our very brief exchange. These guys did not want to go on the record. We would learn later that Cenikor had told everyone in the program, they should not talk to us.
Speaker 9: All right. You all have a good one.
Laura Stareches...: Okay. Thanks.
Shoshana Walter: You too. Okay.
Shoshana Walter: We pull around to see what this place actually is.
Laura Stareches...: It's like a high school. Glen Oaks Magnet High School.
Shoshana Walter: It's definitely under construction.
Laura Stareches...: It's a public school with a huge construction site next to it. It looks like they're building a new school building.
Shoshana Walter: The Cenikor workers are at the site. People must know about it. So we go inside and talk to the principal.
Speaker 10: We don't have anybody from Cenikor here.
Laura Stareches...: Really?
Speaker 10: No, where you get that information?
Shoshana Walter: Who clearly thinks we're very confused, but he puts us on the phone with one of the construction project managers anyway.
Speaker 11: I'm trying to direct you to the correct person here.
Shoshana Walter: He tells us we need to talk to [Cliff 00:00:11:13].
Laura Stareches...: Oh my God. It's daylight out already.
Speaker 10: That's Cliff right there, he's on his way. All right.
Shoshana Walter: Thank you.
Laura Stareches...: Thank you so much for your help. Appreciate it.
Shoshana Walter: Nice to meet you.
Laura Stareches...: Cliff is the first person who seems to know what we're talking about.
Cliff: I think the electricians have a couple of people.
Shoshana Walter: Oh, okay.
Cliff: I think they do.
Shoshana Walter: Yeah.
Shoshana Walter: And he points to a guy walking towards us across the site. The electrical foreman for a company called AEC. One of the businesses on my leaked spreadsheet.
Shoshana Walter: What's his name?
Cliff: [Cliff 00:11:50].
Shoshana Walter: [Cliff 00:00:11:50]? Oh, that's [Cliff] over there.
Cliff: That's [Cliff] there.
Shoshana Walter: [Cliff] and [Cliff 00:00:11:50]? Well yeah, that is very confusing.
Shoshana Walter: The sun's beaming off the big metal machinery. We're standing next to this construction site. Kids are starting to arrive for school. Workers are racing around trucks and equipment, grinding away. A muscular guy with a reddish beard in a hoodie and a white hardhat strides up to us.
Laura Stareches...: Good morning.
Shoshana Walter: Hi, good morning.
Laura Stareches...: [Cliff] number two, [Cliff Smith 00:12:12]. He gives me an elbow bump.
Laura Stareches...: I'm Laura.
Cliff: Hey Laura. Man, my hands are nasty.
Laura Stareches...: Okay. All right. Nice to meet you.
Cliff: Yeah, yeah. You all two.
Shoshana Walter: Sorry we're interrupting your work.
Cliff: No worries. No worries.
Shoshana Walter: We were hoping to learn more about the Cenikor workers and, you know, what they do here and what it's like to have them here.
Cliff: Yeah. They're a good addition to what we do here. So it's like...
Laura Stareches...: Cliff tells us that, yes, he has two Cenikor guys working for him.
Cliff: So we have two on-hand right now.
Laura Stareches...: So the guys in the van are here.
Laura Stareches...: Did they come to you knowing how to do electrical work?
Cliff: Some do, some don't. So I kind of train them on-site.
Laura Stareches...: It's a normal conversation, which is surreal. Why is this such a carefully guarded secret?
Laura Stareches...: How did you first learn about the Cenikor foundation? Like what was your first interaction like with the Cenikor workers?
Cliff: It just, through my trade, through my trade, and it was just a slow process. It was just a slow process learning about it, so.
Shoshana Walter: A slow process of learning about it. Cliff is being a little vague. We keep asking about his relationship with Cenikor. He's friendly, but there's something he's not telling us. Finally, he busts out with this.
Cliff: I'm actually a Cenikor graduate.
Laura Stareches...: Really?
Shoshana Walter: He's a Cenikor graduate.
Shoshana Walter: You didn't tell us that.
Laura Stareches...: Really?
Cliff: Well, I know. I just don't like it because that's a tough thing to admit. That I did so much crappy things throughout my life, but you know, so now I'm here. When people meet me nowadays, they're like, "Wait, really?" So it's like, you know.
Laura Stareches...: When were you in the program?
Cliff: It's been about five years.
Laura Stareches...: Wow.
Cliff: Yeah.
Laura Stareches...: Is that how you learn electrical work?
Cliff: Yeah. That's how I learned the trade. It's an emotional thing for me, you know, so it's like, because I've come from so low.
Laura Stareches...: He tells us he was addicted to opioids, in and out of jail. He was court ordered to Cenikor and it took him three tries to make it through. He says, Cenikor forces people to learn how to stop sucking the life out of society. They need to be forced to learn to work. And that's a good thing.
Cliff: Not only am I a better person, but my family, my parents, my daughters, everybody that sees me, everybody that's around me. It's like huge. It's huge. It's crazy how one person can make so much of a difference. And even if a small percentage of people that go through Cenikor can actually pull off what I'm working to pull off. Man, even if that small percentage can do it, I mean that's huge. It's huge.
Laura Stareches...: Even if it is just a small percentage, this all sounds miraculous. AEC, the company Cliff works for, they told us they treated Cenikor like any staffing service. They've even hired a few other Cenikor graduates. Cliff's standing in the sunshine. He looks totally recovered. He's singing the praises of this program. And we say our goodbyes. And then that same day, our phones start ringing.
Laura Stareches...: This is Laura.
Laura Stareches...: Remember my self-aggrandizing fantasy? Well, one of the guys in the [Nodoco] lighting warehouse, he did piece together who we were. Somehow, he figured out we were from Reveal. He found my number and got the word around.
Laura Stareches...: Oh, hey [Robert 00:00:15:38], how are you?
Laura Stareches...: He got word to people like [Robert Hartman 00:15:42] who told me he just fled Cenikor a few weeks before.
Laura Stareches...: Okay. Do you mind if I just record this call real quick? What we're doing is a radio story. Okay. Hang on just one second.
Laura Stareches...: Okay. Go on ahead. Sorry about that.
Robert Hartman: It's on money making, I mean, I give them, hats off to them on their hustle because they're making money hand over fist, it's just, at what cost, you know?
Laura Stareches...: What kind of jobs did you do when you were in there?
Robert Hartman: Scaffold build. I did implants. I built scaffold. Did electrical work.
Laura Stareches...: For what plants, do you remember?
Robert Hartman: [Totale 00:16:31], PCS Nitrogen...
Laura Stareches...: PCS Nitrogen is a fertilizer company. Nutrien, their parent company, said they weren't aware of unpaid workers on their site. And the other company [Robert] mentioned, [Totale] is a global oil and gas corporation. They never got back to me. Robert told me, Cenikor also sent him to work at a tree trimming company. They had him work as a mover. He worked a full time job during the week and did odd jobs on the weekends.
Robert Hartman: You're working, I mean, six, seven days a week. You know, it's pretty ridiculous.
Laura Stareches...: He also said he'd done electrical work
Laura Stareches...: Who'd you do electrical for?
Robert Hartman: AEC.
Laura Stareches...: Oh, okay. For AEC.
Robert Hartman: Yes ma'am.
Laura Stareches...: What kind of sites did you work at for that?
Robert Hartman: A high school? I did the Glen Oaks High School.
Laura Stareches...: The school district told us they expect subcontractors to follow safety and labor laws.
Laura Stareches...: Oh, we were there this morning.
Speaker 4: Were you?
Laura Stareches...: Yeah. We were at the Glen Oaks High School this morning. We talked to Cliff. Was he your supervisor?
Speaker 4: Yeah. Yeah. Cliff was.
Laura Stareches...: How was that?
Speaker 4: You know, Cliff's a good guy. I, you know...
Laura Stareches...: Robert liked Cliff, said Cliff was always good to him. That wasn't the problem. The problem was feeling beat down and brainwashed by Cenikor, the backbreaking work he did at the chemical plants, the way he felt dehumanized.
Robert Hartman: But you're in Cenikor so it's kind of like an unspoken agreement that you're going to get the crappy job. And you know, they don't care, just get it done. You know?
Laura Stareches...: Once more people heard what we were doing, we got more messages. Some people were too scared to be recorded or identified. One man told me the program was so difficult. He had lost his faith in God while he was there.
Shoshana Walter: 15 Cenikor guys all working at the same plant got a message to us through their supervisor. She said their message was simple. They were tired. They were so, so tired, which left us determined to find out. If Cenikor is supposed to be a drug rehab, is anything resembling treatment actually happening inside?
Al Letson: We tracked down Cenikor participants to tell us about the treatment they got.
Speaker 15: And as soon as I walked in, there were some people there just yelling at each other, telling people to go sit in timeout. And I was like, "What is this?"
Speaker 16: They're allowed to get in your face and scream at you, in your face and scream at you. And they're like, "Who do you think you are coming here and try to tempt us?" in my face. Guys yelling at me like this.
Al Letson: And what happened to them on the job?
Speaker 15: I felt something pop. I heard it pop. And then pain, just throbbing. "Holy shit. My arm's about to fall off" pain.
Al Letson: We start to find out exactly how valuable these participants are to Cenikor.
Speaker 15: You're getting paid three packs of $3 a pack cigarettes a week.
Laura Stareches...: I wonder how much money you made for them while you were there.
Speaker 15: Oh God thousands. Tens of thousands.
Al Letson: That's next time on American Rehab. The American Rehab reporting team is Shoshana Walter, Laura Starecheski and Ike Sriskandarajah. Brett Myers is our editor. Laura is our lead producer and produced this chapter. Amy Julia Harris helped us report the story from the beginning and launched the project. We had additional editorial support from Narda Zacchino, Andy Donahue and Esther Kaplan. Production help from WHYY in Philadelphia. Fact checking by Rosemarie Ho. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager's [Melinda Inahosa 00:20:25].
Al Letson: Our production team includes [Dajeeva Emany 00:20:28], [Amy Mustafa 00:00:20:28], and Claire Mullen. Our theme song is "Lifeline" by the dynamic duo Jay Breezy, [Mr. Jim Briggs 00:00:20:32] and Fernando, my man, [Yo Arruda 00:00:20:37], they composed and performed all of the music on American Rehab. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Support for Reveal is 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.
Al Letson: I'm Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.