Desperate to reduce crowding in jails and prisons, court systems all over the country are trying diversion – alternatives to putting offenders behind bars. On today’s Reveal, we peek behind the good intentions and uneven results.

Reveal’s Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter investigate an Oklahoma recovery center called Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, or CAAIR. The founders of the program say it’s all about helping people with addiction. It turns out it’s also a work camp for a major chicken company.

Next, journalist Lee Romney takes us inside CorrectiveSolutions, a for-profit company that offers diversion services free of charge to prosecutors. The offenders pay for everything. But Romney talked to people in three different states who struggled to pay and said promised drug treatment, mental health care, educational services and more never materialized.

Finally, Sukey Lewis of KQED in San Francisco brings us a story about bail agents. They’re supposed to help people already in the criminal justice system. In California’s biggest bust of its kind, law enforcement officials arrested 31 bail agents over a practice called “bail capping.” We hear evidence from those cases through rarely heard phone calls between people behind bars and the bail agents charged with abusing their power to get them out.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: They thought they were going to rehab. They ended up in chicken plants
  • Read: Arkansas launches fraud investigation into rehab work camps
  • Read: Private diversion programs are failing those who need help the most


Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.


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.

 Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson:For the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
After his DUI, Aaron Snyder went to a treatment program where he thought he’d get help to kick his habit.
Aaron Snyder:As we were pulling up, I’ve taken my last handful of pills and get out and walk in the door and check myself in.
Al Letson:But this programs idea of treatment was manual labor at the local chicken plant.
Aaron Snyder:That’s not recovery that’s a slave camp.
Al Letson:The people who run the program say they are helping addicts by giving them a job, even if they don’t get paid for it.
Speaker 3:If 40 hours a week is a slave camp, then America’s a slave camp.
Al Letson:But many of the people sent to this program don’t have a choice. Drug courts order them to go there instead of prison, even though state regulators tell them that’s not how it’s supposed to work.
Speaker 4:I do what I want to do. They don’t mess with me.
Al Letson:Coming up today on Reveal.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
One day three years ago, Cody Harper boarded a bus full of inmates headed to an Oklahoma prison. His addiction to prescription drugs had gotten out of control.
Cody Harper:I sat down and there was a black fellow that was sitting right next to me. He said, “You know, you look like that Deputy Harper that bust me for cocaine down on the interstate.” I mean this is right out of the gate, I’m going to another prison and I’m riding. I said, “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know who that is.” I’m sitting there trying. I knew right then and there I was going to have a problem.
Al Letson:On top of the problem that put him on a bus full of inmates.
Cody Harper:The smartest people in the world are addicts or alcoholics because they’ll do anything to survive; lie, cheat, steal, kill. They’ll do anything to get what they need. I was one of them.
Al Letson:In 2008, he was working as a small town’s sheriff’s deputy. He was the Deputy Harper his fellow bus-mate remembered. Then, Cody crashed his pickup truck and landed in the hospital with broken bones. He said prescription painkillers delivered his only relief. When he returned to work, he kept popping the pills.
Cody Harper:You know, I would take 10 Percocets at a time and go out and work and actually enforce the law when I was actually more messed up than the people that was … I was dealing with. You know?
Al Letson:Cody remembers leaning over the bodies of people who had overdosed and taking their drugs. He even stole from the sheriff’s evidence locker.
Cody Harper:I had gun safes in there with enough narcotics to get Oklahoma City high.
Al Letson:He figured no one would miss them, but after one trip to the locker he did a bad job of covering his tracks. He was arrested and soon found himself on the way to prison.
Cody Harper:I was scared to death because I knew where I was going I was going to run into people that I put there.
Al Letson:Around the same time, Oklahoma was trying to get a handle on its problems with prisons and drugs. The state reports some of the country’s highest rates of substance abuse and incarceration. Oklahoma’s Governor Mary Fallin touched on that in last year’s State of the State Address.
Mary Fallin:Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room, Oklahoma’s drug possession sentences haven’t deterred substance abuse and have filled our prisons to over capacity.
Al Letson:She urged lawmakers to stop locking up so many people for drug-related crimes, and start referring them to treatment and rehabilitation.
That’s the kind of help a judge recommended for Cody after multiple arrests on drug charges. Instead of another spell in prison, he was ordered to a recovery center called CAARE, Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery.
Reveal’s Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter investigated CAARE. The founders of the program say it’s all about helping alcoholics and addicts. Turns out it also benefits a major chicken company.
Janet Wilkerson:Yeah, we love it out here. We have 80 acres. You know, the men get out and walk and …


Shoshana Walter:The founder and CEO of CAARE, Janet Wilkerson, shows Amy Julia and me around the program’s sunny, green campus. We walk along a gravel path past a rose garden, a flagpole and into a gleaming dormitory. It’s lunchtime.


Janet Wilkerson:Hey, guys.


Speaker 10:How you doing?


Janet Wilkerson:I’m good.


Shoshana Walter:CAARE is in a town called Jay, way out in the country, almost out of Oklahoma in the Northeast corner of the state. Almost 200 court-ordered drug addicts and alcoholics are here at any given time.


Amy Julie H.:Janet says she wants these men to feel comfortable at CAARE. Bible verses and her daughter’s quilts decorate the walls. She thinks of her program as a ministry to society’s outcast.


Janet Wilkerson:I’m Mama Janet. I love to hug them and love on them, because nobody likes them.


Shoshana Walter:Court officials love Janet’s program. CAARE is strict and faith-based. It offers housing, meals, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and counseling. Unlike most rehab programs, it doesn’t charge its clients any money.


Janet Wilkerson:That was one of the principle reasons that CAARE was created as it is. It’s so that we can help more and more people that don’t have the funds.


Amy Julie H.:That attracted Aaron Snyder to the program. He’s left it now. I meet him at his apartment about an hour north of Tulsa.


Aaron Snyder:Julie Harris.


Amy Julie H.:Hey Aaron! Hey!


When Aaron’s parents first drove him to the campus he had been arrested for his fifth DUI and he was addicted to pain pills.


Aaron Snyder:As we were pulling up, I reached in my pocket and grab some more tabs and some Klonopin and take my last handful of pills and get out and walk in the door and check myself in.


Amy Julie H.:Aaron hoped a year at CAARE would help him turn his life around.


Aaron Snyder:You find out real quick you’re going to go to work. You’re going to work hard. You’re going to work hard for these 40 hours for the rest of the time. 40 hours a week for the rest of the year, you’re here.


Amy Julie H.:Every day men from the program work alongside paid employees at chicken processing planets right across the state line in Missouri and Arkansas.


Simmons Foods owns the factories. It’s a privately-owned company that takes in close to a billion-and-a-half dollars a year. Simmons makes chicken products for KFC, Walmart and PetSmart.


Aaron Snyder:My job was to clean the room that they killed the chickens in, which had blood literally ceiling to floor, and chicken heads and stuff laying around in it.


Shoshana Walter:Other men hung live chickens on a noisy, speeding conveyor belt, like this one in this industrial video.


In refrigerated rooms, workers pulled out their guts, sorted the parts and packaged them. The hours are long. The machinery and tools move fast and can cause injuries.


Most Americans don’t want these jobs, and CAARE guys got the worst of them. Here’s what three of the guys told us.


Speaker 12:Oh, it’s the most awful smell you ever … I mean like I wouldn’t eat chicken for like three years after I come home. That’s the nastiest place. The nastiest thing.


Speaker 13:No one’s ready for that coming in.


Speaker 14:It is horrible. I mean because your muscles, your back, your knees, your body.


Speaker 12:A lot of the CAARE guys they’ll get treated like they’re scum or they’re troublemakers.


Amy Julie H.:More than chickens hung over their heads. If they were slow on the line or injured on the job, Simmons could fire them. The county drug courts that sent them to CAARE could send them to prison.


Shoshana Walter:On top of that, the men in the program work for free. Simmons pays CAARE in exchange for the labor. Janet says that money pays for the program. The workers get no wages.


Aaron Snyder:That’s ridiculous, man. That’s not recovery, that’s a slave camp.


Amy Julie H.:Even under these conditions, Aaron got clean at care. He was one of the few who did. In 2014, CAARE reported only a quarter of the men completed the program, but many of the men who did say it saved their lives.


Janet doesn’t dwell on success or failure but on the reason she started the program, to serve men like her brother who drank himself to death.


Janet Wilkerson:That stuck in the back of my mind that he wanted help so bad, but money was an obstacle. That’s where we are with so many of these men, money is an obstacle. They don’t have 10, 20, 30 thousand dollars to spend for a 30 or 45-day program. I mean, that was part of the goal, was to help men like my brother.


Shoshana Walter:That wasn’t her only goal. We discovered that when Janet started CAARE a decade ago, she was a human resources executive in the poultry industry. She moonlighted as a spokeswoman for Simmons Foods and other poultry companies.


Amy Julie H.:After she had trouble filling the overnight shift at the chicken plants, Janet pitched her bosses an idea: What if she created a non-profit that put addicts to work?


Shoshana Walter:It was an easy sell. Simmons gets a cheap and captive labor force, it pays CAARE a flat rate for each worker. If one of the CAARE guys gets injured on the job, Simmons is not responsible for them.


Amy Julie H.:Plus, the company can fire them-


 Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
 Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Speaker 1:… is not responsible for them.


Speaker 2:Plus, the company can fire them for any reason at any time, and it doesn’t provide health care. That’s different from the way Simmons treats its paid employees.


Speaker 1:In her office, I asked Janet and Jim Lovell about that. He manages the CAAIR program.


Was CAAIR started in part to benefit Simmons?


Speaker 3:No, no.


Janet Wilkerson:No, absolutely not.


Jim Lovell:They partnered with us because they want to help the alcoholic and the addict, and providing them with jobs is helping them.


Janet Wilkerson:We are such a small portion of Simmons.


Jim Lovell:I know.


Janet Wilkerson:I mean, they’re a big company. We have a, you know, a minute portion of their workforce.


Jim Lovell:If 40 hours a week is a slave camp, then America’s a slave camp, huh?


Speaker 1:I know that, compared to Simmons’s entire workforce, CAAIR men are a very small portion of this.


Janet Wilkerson:Hm, absolutely.


Speaker 1:But they don’t have to pay worker’s compensation. They don’t have to pay for other benefits. CAAIR is taking care of that, right?


So, are there benefits to Simmons aside from they’re helping addicts and alcoholics?


Janet Wilkerson:I’m sure there is. We’re like a temp agency, and they hire through lots of temp agencies. You know, so, yeah, it’s a benefit to them. We’re providing workers, but I will tell you the benefit to the men is much larger than the benefit that Simmons receives.


Speaker 2:There are big differences between the workers from CAAIR and most Americans. People who work 40 hours a week get paid for it. So do defendants at some other rehabs that require them to work. The CAAIR guys don’t. When most Americans quit or get fired from their jobs, they don’t risk prison time. The way Aaron sees it, the men lose and the program and company win.


Aaron Snyder:Work takes priority over everything. If it’s work or counseling or work or classes, it’s work. You’re going to work. You know, they’re scratching each other’s back, that’s for sure.


Speaker 2:After graduating from the program, he worked as a dorm manager at CAAIR for a while, but he grew disillusioned and eventually left.


Speaker 1:CAAIR’s tax filings show that in seven years the program brought in more than $11 million, most from its contract with Simmons. Those filings also show CAAIR pays Janet about $112,000 a year to run the program. At any given time, the program houses a couple hundred men. Janet says that’s hardly enough to run a factory.


Speaker 2:Hundreds of paid employees also work at Simmons, but during certain shifts, Aaron says the assembly line depends on CAAIR guys.


Aaron Snyder:You’re talking about a plant that runs a quarter of a million processes, a quarter of a million chickens, a day. Some of those shifts, they were taking two or three 15-passenger vans full of people to the chicken plant. You’re talking 40 guys on a shift going to work at a plant. If CAAIR didn’t go in, they’d have to shut the plant down.


Speaker 2:The chicken company has repeatedly laid off paid workers as it brought on more and more laborers from CAAIR. Simmons even paid for CAAIR to build a new dorm, saying it needed more workers from the program.


Speaker 1:We called Simmons to ask about this. Spokesman Donny Epp says the company partners with the program to help addicts, not the other way around.


Is Simmons relying on CAAIR to fill that labor shortage?


Donny Epp:You know, our goal is probably less about, you know, filling a labor shortage and more about finding the right people for the right jobs. And then also, you know, believing in kind of the mission of CAAIR and the impact they’re having in people’s lives.


Speaker 1:Just as Simmons relies on CAAIR, CAAIR relies on the criminal justice system. Drug courts supply a huge number of the men who land in that program. Here’s how drug court works.


Speaker 2:To avoid prison, defendants must enter a guilty plea.


Speaker 1:The judges require them to get regular drug tests, attend Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and hold down steady jobs.


Speaker 2:Judges also order defendants to complete addiction treatment. If they fail, they can end up behind bars.


Speaker 1:In the Stephens County Drug Court, Sharon Cain tells the judge where he should send defendants for treatment. She’s a big believer in CAAIR, in part because there aren’t enough affordable treatment programs.


Sharon Cain:We used to have beds at in-patient places that was total treatment. They’ve cut the funding now so Drug Court does not have bed that are paid for.


Speaker 1:People wait as long as nine months for the beds the state does pay for. At CAAIR, there’s no long wait list. It costs the courts and defendants nothing. The program sends addicts away from the people and places that supported their bad habits. That’s why Sharon uses CAAIR.


Sharon Cain:Generally, when I send people to CAAIR, it’s to break ties with somebody in this county. It’s to get them used to getting up and going to a job, so it’s about making them grow up.


Speaker 1:There’s just one problem, though, a pretty big one.


Speaker 2:We found out it may be against the law for drug courts like Sharon’s to send men to CAAIR for treatment. Drug courts are only supposed to do that using facilities the state inspects and certifies. Those places emphasize mental health and drug treatment over work. Their medical and counseling staffs are fully trained.


Speaker 1:CAAIR offers some services, but the program has never been certified, and most of its staff are not licensed. Because of that, when things go wrong, defendants have little recourse. Oklahoma requires its Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to monitor drug courts and rehab programs throughout the state, but it can’t do much if judges are breaking the law. All it can do is pull that drug court’s funding.


Speaker 2:Sharon doesn’t seem to worry about that.


It sounds like you don’t interact much with the Department of Mental Health?


Sharon Cain:Very, as little as possible. I do what I want to do. They don’t mess with me, and I’m not saying that in a cocky way. They just know I’m not, I’m going to do drug court the way I’ve always done it. If they come in here and start messing with us, the judge will shut Drug Court down.


Speaker 2:At least 20 drug courts in Oklahoma send defendants to CAAIR. State law says drug courts must use certified treatment programs. Some drug court judges have found a way around that.


Speaker 1:They don’t say they’re sending people with addictions for treatment. They say they’re sending people there to give them work experience and stable housing.


Speaker 2:But Sharon says you should look at the results, like Brandon Spurgin.


He was a defensive tackle on his high school football team before he went to work in the oil fields. There, he got addicted to meth. Sharon thought CAAIR could help him, even though it’s not certified.


Sharon Cain:Brandon appreciated it. It made him grow up a little bit, too, which is good. Did y’all meet Brandon in person?


Speaker 2:We did. When we showed up, he wasn’t doing so well. He’d just had surgery.


Hi, Renee!


Renee:Hello, nice to meet you. Come in.


Speaker 2:I’m sorry, I took you out of work.


Renee:Oh, no, it’s-


Speaker 2:You still have the bands from the hospital.


Brandon Spurgin:Yeah, I ain’t took ’em off yet.


Speaker 2:Hi! How are you?


Brandon and CAAIR parted ways a couple years ago. He normally towers over six feet tall. His T-shirt reads, “Keep Calm and Date a Big Guy.” He’s sitting in his parents’ living room, slumped on a brown corduroy couch, chewing tobacco and grimacing in pain.


Brandon Spurgin:Go in there and-


Speaker 2:His mom Renee asks if he’s okay.


Renee:You need another pain pill?


Brandon Spurgin:Yeah, but if I do that, I’ll be in there asleep.


Renee:Yeah. [crosstalk 00:17:49].


Speaker 2:Here’s how Brandon got this way.


Speaker 1:One night, he was working at the chicken plant when a metal door crashed down on his head. Almost three years later, slurring his words, he remembers how hard it knocked him out. There was blood everywhere.


Brandon Spurgin:Yeah, I know I laid up there about 10 minutes ’til I could stand back up. Everything, my whole shirt was covered in blood, my pants. Had overalls on, they were soaked through.


Speaker 1:Right after he got hurt, doctors stapled up his head. Brandon says the accident damaged his spine. He suffered from dizziness and intense migraines.


Brandon Spurgin:They sent me back to work.


Renee:That day he went back to work before he did go back, did you go back to the chicken ranch?


Brandon Spurgin:Yep.


Renee:Yeah, back to the chicken farm. He did go back to work there before they sent him home.


Speaker 2:Brandon knew he needed more medical attention, but he says he was scared to leave, so he kept working. If he didn’t, he could fail drug court and get sentenced to 15 years in prison. He got sober and graduated from drug court, but-


Brandon Spurgin:I wouldn’t do it again. I’d rather go to prison than do that again.


Speaker 2:Brandon says he’d rather go to prison than go back to CAAIR.


Speaker 1:Today, he’s in constant pain and he can’t hold down a full-time job. At 35 years old, Brandon depends on his mom and dad.


Renee:He has days that he just absolutely can’t work. He’s non-functionable at times.


Speaker 2:Renee, his mom, does give thanks that Brandon is clean and his drug charges were dismissed.


Renee:Scared straight, hurt straight, maybe, I’m not sure. So I’m not gonna say that it didn’t work.


Speaker 2:Renee says CAAIR never apologized to Brandon for his injuries. The program pocketed his worker’s compensation and that of other guys who got hurt.


Renee’s trying to make peace with all that.


Renee:And so even though we say, well, we didn’t get this and we didn’t get that, we have him. Sorry. We have him, but he come at a price.


Speaker 1:Brandon’s health and his independence.


 Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
 Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Al Letson:That story from Reveal, Shoshana Walter and Amy Julia Harris. There’s something else they found out: Care might violate the US Constitution. The 13th Amendment bans slavery and involuntary servitude. It does allow the government to use convicts for forced labor, but many of the people in the CARE program haven’t yet been convicted of any crimes.


Across the country there are all kinds of programs that let people avoid criminal convictions and promise to get them help, but what happens when those programs don’t fulfill those promises?


Austin G.:I thought it was a really good step at first, and then I had that realization that if I can’t pay then I’m not going anywhere in my life, and that means I’m kind of screwed.


Al Letson:That story next on Revel from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Byard Duncan:Hey folks. Byard Duncan here. I work on Revel’s engagement team. That rehab center in Oklahoma, Care, it isn’t the only one that puts its residents to work for free. There are others like it out there, we’re just not sure how many. No one is. So, we want your help tracking them. If you have experience with a work-based rehab center, text rehab to 63735. We’ll send you a short form where you can share your story. Again, that’s rehab to 63735.


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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Like we just heard in Oklahoma, some diversion programs don’t always help the people they’re supposed to serve. Journalist Lee Romney has also been investigating diversion programs for Revel. She’s been in one herself.


Lee Romney:I have. Dreaded traffic school.


Al Letson:Traffic school. After you get a ticket it’s a class you take on a Saturday afternoon to keep your car insurance rates from going up. There’s even a comedy traffic school where instructors are stand up comics who try to take the edge off.


Lee Romney:That’s how they get you in the door, but I went to one of those and it was like anti-comedy school. The joke was on us.


Al Letson:That sounds horrible. I’m sorry.


Lee Romney:It was bad.


Al Letson:Traffic school’s the simplest form of diversion, and it’s been around for decades. But now courts and prosecutors are using diversion for a whole bunch of other types of crimes, from drug possession to trespassing.


Lee Romney:There’s actually bipartisan agreement that we’ve been clogging our prisons and jails and people keep returning and there’s got to be a better way.


Al Letson:Diversions also become a popular way to lighten case loads for prosecutors, judges, and public defenders, because it channels people out of the system before they’re convicted, or sometimes even charged. For example, if you get busted for drugs you might go into rehab. If you get into a fight you might go to anger management classes. Finish the program, no conviction on your record. But just like private companies who have moved into running bail bonds, prisons, and even probation, now they’re getting into the diversion game. A lot of prosecutors love it.


Lee Romney:It’s pretty simple. It’s appealing to prosecutors because they pay nothing. For profit diversion programs are 100% offender funded.


Al Letson:That’s a sweet deal that can get even sweeter. Some companies, like Corrective Solutions in Orange County, California, pay the prosecutor’s office a cut for each offender who enrolls.


Lee Romney:50 bucks a pop.


Al Letson:So that’s their edge. They’re able to come in and say, “We’re not going to charge you, and actually, we’re going to give you money. We’re going to give you a kickback.”


Lee Romney:Some people call it that. The company calls it an administrative fee, or sometimes they call it return of prosecutor costs. But, basically, they’re making money from offenders.


Al Letson:So while prosecutors are getting kickbacks, the people who committed the crime have to pay for these programs. If they can’t pay they could end up with a criminal charge on their record. Now, the program cost from $350 to more than $800. Corrective Solutions tells prosecutors they’ll offer breaks to people who can’t afford it through a so-called indigent fund. Now, that sounds good, but those programs are paid for by charging other offenders more, and it’s the company — the private company — that decides who gets the help.


Lee Romney:It’s a totally moving goalpost. Its not even really clear at all how you qualify, and I talked to lots of people who said they weren’t even told there was an indigent fund.


Al Letson:That’s what happened to 23 year old, Austin Greenwood from Sonoma County, in the wine country north of San Francisco.


Austin G.:I needed some sort of program for my recovery, and I thought it was a really good step at first, and then I had that realization that if I can’t pay then I’m not going anywhere in my life, and that means I’m kind of screwed.


Al Letson:At the time, he was literally living under a bridge. Austin was addicted to meth when he was charged with possession of a meth pipe. On top of all of that, he had untreated bipolar disorder. He told all of this to her Corrective Solutions case manager.


Austin G.:She didn’t say anything about any grants or any way to help pay. She just set a price and said, “Bring this much when you come in.”


Al Letson:Under California law the program for first-time drug offenders that Austin was in has to offer financial breaks to people who can’t pay. We got data from the prosecutor’s office that showed the company clearly wasn’t doing that. All last year the amount it gave out wouldn’t have even covered the cost of putting two people through the program. To find out what was going on, Lee visited Thomas Johnson, the Chief Operating Officer and General Council for Corrective Solutions.


Lee Romney:Are you Thomas?


Thomas Johnson:Yeah. Hi, how are you?


Lee Romney:Hi, I’m Lee.


Thomas Johnson:Hi, Lee. How’s it going?


Al Letson:He’s the son of the CEO. It’s a family run operation.


Lee Romney:He did acknowledge that participants in the drug diversion program are often homeless, and he said the company knows the indigent fund isn’t really working like it should.


Al Letson:Thomas says his company’s testing a new appeals process for people who’ve been denied assistance.


Lee Romney:I asked him to share the details of that, but he wouldn’t.


Thomas Johnson:A lot of this stuff is the secret sauce on how the program works. If we share all of the operational secrets, the trade secrets, then we’re going to have our competitors picking up and doing the exact same thing.


Al Letson:Secret sauce? Really? I mean, it’s a public program.


Lee Romney:You know, it should be public sauce.


Al Letson:Right. I mean, we should all know what’s in the sauce if the public is eating it, right?


Lee Romney:Right.


Al Letson:Diversion isn’t just about keeping offenders’ records clean. It’s supposed to address the reason the person ended up getting in trouble in the first place by treating things like substance abuse or mental illness. Corrective Solutions pledges to hook people up with a whole bunch of services: drug and mental health treatment, food pantries, shelters, even educational services.


Lee Romney:I talked to people in three different states who said they needed help and they weren’t offered any.


Al Letson:Aaron [Robinette 00:28:11] was one of them. We met him when he was 24 years old, living with his dad and brother in Pinal County, Arizona, between Phoenix and Tucson.


Lee Romney:It was a house on the outskirts of Casa Grande surrounded by alfalfa fields. Super weathered ranch house with cow skulls all over the property.


Al Letson:Aaron had ended up with Corrective Solutions because of a marijuana possession charge. He had bigger problems, too. A heroin addiction he explained to his Corrective Solutions counselor.


Lee Romney:The counselor is not a trained or licensed counselor. In this case, his counselor was a Corrective Solutions employee who was a former cop. He didn’t offer much to Aaron at all.


Al Letson:Aaron’s counsel was mostly concerned with checking in to find out whether he’d paid his money, taken his drug tests, and attended his classes.


Aaron Robinette:I was pretty much on my own through that entire situation. They didn’t offer any counseling, they did not offer for me to attend a rehab.


Al Letson:About a month in Aaron overdosed and landed in a psychiatric hospital. His family arranged for him to go to a treatment center in Tucson. He let Corrective Solutions know what was going on.


Aaron Robinette:I had to seek rehab and hospitalization on my own, and when I did initiate it, they took that as failing to comply with the program.


Lee Romney:Because he missed a check in they failed him from the program.


Al Letson:When Aaron got out of rehab, prosecutors charged him with a felony, that old marijuana possession charge. He landed a job, but he lost it as soon as the employer did a background check. A county prosecutor offered him the Corrective Solutions diversion program again, and he took it.


Aaron Robinette:The second time I went through it there was no drug tests in place. There was nothing like that. I mean, it’s almost like they’re giving me a free pass through the program to take my money. That’s what it feels like.


Al Letson:He finally made it through the program, and prosecutors dismissed that felony case. In the end, though-


 Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
 Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Al Letson:…and prosecutors dismissed that felony case. In the end though, Aaron didn’t get the help he needed.


Speaker 2:I’m really sad to say that he died July 26th at home at his dad’s house.


Al Letson:He died of an apparent heroin overdose.


Speaker 2:I spoke to his sister, Ashley Robinette, and she says there’s no way to know if he would’ve done better if he had been offered meaningful services through the diversion program, but what we do know is that he wasn’t.


Ashley R:They did not offer us one bit of help for Aaron. Not anything. That diversion program, it was useless and it failed my brother. And now he’s gone. And he maybe wouldn’t have been if they would’ve helped him a little more. I hope they can get a program in there that will help people to get clean, to find a job, and to begin living their life.


Al Letson:Lee tells us that a new [Panau 00:31:01] County attorney took office this year. He ended the contract with Corrective Solutions after he reviewed some of Reveal’s findings. His office is creating an in-house diversion program. To see pictures of Aaron, and read Lee’s reporting on diversion, visit our website, …


Sometimes the people who bail others out of jail can run into legal troubles of their own.


Dino Garcia:When I tried calling other bail bondsmen friends of mine, it was funny ’cause I couldn’t get through to anyone. Everybody was in jail.


Al Letson:When the bail bondsman goes behind bars, that’s up next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting, and PRX. …


Hey, this is Al, and we wanted to take a break to tell you about another podcast that you might like, and this one I have a personal attachment to. I love this podcast because I love the guys who create it. I was there when they got started. I knew them as babies, they were such cute little babies. Aaron Hencken and Wendell Patrick, they’re my friends, and they create this amazing podcast called Out of the Blocks. Now, in each episode, they try to meet every single person on a city block. They hang out, they listen, they record stories and soundscapes, and then they stitch it all together with an original musical score. The result is fascinating, it’s a cinematic mosaic of humanity. Out of the Blocks, check it out on Apple Podcasts, Radio Public, or wherever you listen. And be sure to let them know that Al told you say hey. And now, back to Reveal. …


From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. This hour, we’ve been talking about programs to keep people out of the criminal justice system that end up hurting the people they’re supposed to help. Now, we’re going to meet someone who is supposed to help people once they’re already in the system. His name is Dino Garcia. He was a bail bonds agent living in Santa Clara County, California, home to Silicon Valley.


Now one day, back in August of 2015, he peeked through the blinds of his home, and saw that he was surrounded.


Dino Garcia:Several police officers and undercover cars parked in the front of my house with a loudspeaker, guns pointed at me, at 7:00 a.m. Mind you I had my three week old grandson in my arm, so when I went to open the blind, the laser hit him. The laser was going slowly up to me and I says, “Holy smokes,” I thought I was dreaming. So I put the baby down and I just walked outside, I says, and I already knew what it was about.


Al Letson:Dino was used to getting people out of jail. Now, he was headed there himself.


Dino Garcia:I did bail out. When I tried calling other bail bondsmen friends of mine, it was funny ’cause I couldn’t get through to anyone. Everybody was in jail.


Al Letson:Along with Dino, 30 other bail agents were arrested. It was the biggest bust of its kind in California history, and the culmination of a year long investigation by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office. But for Alison Filo, who was faced with a stack of 31 cases to prosecute, it was just the beginning.


Alison Filo:As a prosecutor for 17 years working on some of the most serious cases in our office, I had no idea how little I knew about bail.


Al Letson:As she dug into the cases, Filo learned more and more about how the bail system really works. Today, you’re going to hear evidence of those cases too, through rarely heard phone calls between people behind bars and the bail agents who’ve got the power to get them out. Sukey Lewis of KQED in San Francisco takes us inside the world of bail.


Sukey Lewis:To understand why all those bail agents got busted, you first need to know what usually happens when someone gets arrested and brought to jail. There’s fingerprints, a mug shot, mental health screening, maybe something to eat. And of course, a phone call.


Speaker 8:Hello?


Sukey Lewis:‘Cause, if you want to get out of jail, usually, you’ll need to call a bail agent, like this one.


Speaker 8:This is your first time being arrested for domestic violence?


Speaker 9:Yes.


Speaker 8:Okay. So usually, first time domestic violence, your bail will land about $25,000.


Sukey Lewis:In this case, the defendant can post the full 25 grand to get out, if she has it. Money that she’ll get back when the case is over. But if she doesn’t have the $25,000, she’ll have to go through a bail agent.


Speaker 8:We charge you 10% to do that.


Sukey Lewis:In return for that fee, the bail company promises to make sure the defendant show up to court. That 10% the company keeps, no matter what happens with the case.


Speaker 8:Then that secures your release as long as you go to all your court dates.


Sukey Lewis:If you don’t show up, bail agents are either supposed to find you, or pay the court the full bail amount.


Speaker 8:Is there somebody who can help you bail out of jail?


Speaker 9:Um-


Sukey Lewis:Calls like these are how bail agents make money. In Santa Clara County alone, bail companies pull in about $25 million in revenue each year. Nationwide, it’s a $2 billion industry. The competition for this money is fierce. So, bail agents like Dino Garcia take as many of these calls as they can.


Dino Garcia:Now I learned a long time ago, answer your calls. No matter if you think it’s bullshit or not, answer your calls because we all hope and want that big one, that $1 million, $10 million bail. ‘Cause you never know.


Sukey Lewis:Dino’s a stocky guy, with slicked back dark hair. He’s always looking for the next deal. And he took hundreds of these calls a month.


Dino Garcia:My family could tell you to this day, I mean, Christmas, hol- Thanksgiving, 3:00 a.m. my phone, I sleep with my phone. My phone was ringing all the time.


Speaker 10:This call is from a correction facility and is subject to monitoring and recording.


Speaker 11:What’s up kid, what’s going on, dude?


Speaker 12:Nothing.


Speaker 11:What’s happening man, where you been, dude?


Dino Garcia:The relationship we have with inmates, some are built through years of trust over the phone. But you know, you want to develop a rapport and relationship with inmates. And sometimes that entails, excuse my French, you’re bullshitting, you’re chopping it up, you want them to like you.


Sukey Lewis:But in these calls, you can hear Dino’s relationship with inmates crossing over from friendship to something else entirely.


Dino Garcia:[Terrell 00:37:32], what’s up buddy?


Terrell:Hey, I was calling to see if I can, I still, I can, if I can still work for you.


Sukey Lewis:So here’s an inmate not calling for bail at all. He’s asking Dino if he can still work for him.


Dino Garcia:Hell yeah, buddy.


Sukey Lewis:Dino says yes, ’cause what does this inmate have access to that Dino desperately needs? Guys that have just been booked and are looking to bail out, fresh clients, and Dino had a bunch of these inmates hustling for him. Sometimes calling him 10 times a day. Here’s Dino getting a call from another inmate.


Speaker 14:[foreign language 00:38:03]


Dino Garcia:Yeah what’s up dude? [crosstalk 00:38:09]


Speaker 14:Hey I got a good one for you. Apple computer employee.


Dino Garcia:Okay.


Speaker 14:Domestic violence, bail 100 K- [crosstalk 00:38:19]


Dino Garcia:How long has he been in custody for?


Sukey Lewis:That’s Dino asking.


Speaker 14:He just barely been in custody since last night. He went to court today. And he got his court papers, and it’s 100 K, he said he’s willing to put up the 10 Gs.


Dino Garcia:All right, well let me work some [inaudible 00:38:35].


Sukey Lewis:And what you’re hearing right there, an inmate arranging bail for another inmate, that’s called bail capping. It’s illegal, and that’s why these calls were evidence in a felony criminal case.


See, California law says only the person who’s been arrested, their family member or their attorney can set up bail. The law is meant to protect inmates from exploitation. First time arrestees can be really scared, and just don’t know how the system works. For example, there’s a chance they could get released without having to pay bail at all. And it wasn’t just Dino and his guys. There were dozens of inmates and dozens of bail agents working these schemes. One inmate recruiter made more than 1200 calls to bail agents in just five months.


Prosecutor Filo has listened to hundreds of these calls, where you can hear these recruiters working as middlemen, vouching for other inmates, and even negotiating discounts.


Alison Filo:They were sort of the gate keepers of bail, that they controlled access to the phones, and that they would actually manipulate or maneuver people into or out of certain housing situations, so that they would have less competition for referring the inmates.


Sukey Lewis:And how would they do that? Like, get people into different housing?


Alison Filo:There’s lots of ways in jail to get people in trouble.


Sukey Lewis:I wanted to know how this whole thing worked.


 Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
 Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:55:14]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Speaker 1:Trouble.


Sukey Lewis:I wanted to know how this whole thing worked from someone who was in on it, an inmate.


Speaker 3:Hello.


Sukey Lewis:Hi.


Speaker 3:So are we recorded right now?


Sukey Lewis:So yeah, now we’re still recording is that okay?


Speaker 3:Yeah that’s good.


Sukey Lewis:So, I tracked down this guy, Scott [Culp 00:40:16], at Pleasant Valley State Prison where he’s now doing time for armed robbery. He was transferred here from Santa Clara County jail where he spent his days working for bail agents.


How did you get the inmates to go along with it?


Speaker 3:They had no choice.


Sukey Lewis:Scott says in the area of the jail where he was locked up, new inmates weren’t given instructions on how to use the phone codes needed to make a call. So, he’d helped them.


Speaker 3:And I’d take their code, I’d use their code, so they’re not able to call their family to have their family bail them out. They have to go through [inaudible 00:40:54] bail bond agencies.


Sukey Lewis:Bail agents compensated these recruiters in two ways.


Speaker 3:They would send money. They would put money on my books.


Sukey Lewis:By books, he means his commissary account to buy things in jail, like noodle soups, stationary, and shampoo. When he was transferred out of the county jail to state prison, Culp says he passed the business on to another inmate. And it was a pretty good business. Culp told me he made 15 thousand dollars in one year, but I have no way of confirming that and prosecutor Filo couldn’t either. The jail kept no record of who deposited money into inmate’s accounts.


Speaker 1:You would think that you would have to show some identification or something in order to provide an inmate with commissary credit, or phone credit, or actual cash, and you don’t. So they were able to freely give those sorts of benefits with no accountability or no paper trail.


Sukey Lewis:The other way inmates were paid, with phone calls. To show you how this worked, let’s listen in again to one of [Dino’s 00:41:58] guy’s calling him.


Speaker 4:This call will cost you no more than three dollars, eleven cents. For the first minute and eleven cents or each additional-


Sukey Lewis:[crosstalk 00:42:09] As you can hear, just initiating a call from jail can run you about four dollars. Call are limited to 15 minutes and the charges rack up fast.


Speaker 4:To accept this call press zero.


Sukey Lewis:[crosstalk 00:42:21] [Dino 00:42:21] accepts the call and the charges.


Speaker 5:No I just wanted to see if I can speak to my wife when you have time?


Dino:Yeah hold on.


Sukey Lewis:Dino agrees and connects him to his wife. That’s what’s known as a three-way call. Dino’s picking up the charges for this inmate to talk to his wife. Three-way calls became a currency between inmates and bail agents greasing the wheels of the bail scheme but they also posed a threat to public safety.


Prosecutor Filo says that inmates could make calls to set up new crimes and law enforcement would have no way of knowing because the only number that appears on the jail phone records is the bail agent’s number.


Speaker 1:And if the bail agent then uses his or her cell phone or her office phone and makes a three-way call to, for instance, that inmate’s domestic violence victim, who’s protected by a restraining order, we would have no way to prove that that phone call was made.


Sukey Lewis:When Filo told me this, I was like, wait a minute. Because remember how each call begins?


Speaker 4:This call is from a corrections facility and is subject to monitoring and recording.


Sukey Lewis:I had to wonder, were guards actually listening? And if they were, why did they let these calls continue?


How are you today?


Amy Le:Good, and you?


Sukey Lewis:So what-


[crosstalk 00:43:37] I put these questions to Amy Le. She’s president of the union that represents correctional officers in Santa Clara County.


Like one of the inmates who was working as a recruiter for a bail company made 1200 calls in the course of four and a half months, which is like, that’s a lot of calls all to the same number. And it seems obvious, like okay, this guy doesn’t need bail. He can’t be calling for bail, but maybe, why would that happen? Why wouldn’t that come to someone’s attention?


Amy Le:We don’t monitor how many phone calls inmate make a day, or a month, or a week. We don’t monitor that at all. The only time the department is monitoring the phone call if there is a, you know, active criminal investigations.


Sukey Lewis:She told me there’s one guard on duty for 76 inmates and policing the phones just hasn’t been that big of a priority.


And what about this issue of the three-way phone calls where it seems that the bail agents were compensating inmates by giving them free phone calls. How was that allowed?


Amy Le:The three-ways phone call is not allowed at all but it’s very different if a person sit on by the phone and you know they’re going to make a three-way phone calls or not because you can’t listen to their phone conversation at that moment.


Sukey Lewis:Over the past two years, I’ve tried many times to get the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jails, to respond to all the questions that came up in my reporting. Like, how inmates were able to control the phones? How jail staff could have been in the dark about this illegal activity? And, was there any truth to claims correctional staff were actually in on the schemes? The sheriff’s department wouldn’t answer any of these questions.


The next place I turned for answers was outside the jail to the bail industry itself. How much did corporate [inaudible 00:45:32] know about what their employees were up to?


Peter B.:We were taken by surprise by the arrests in Santa Clara County.


Sukey Lewis:After many requests over the past year, I finally got a call back from Peter Boats, chief counsel for the biggest bail company in the country, Aladdin. Eight current or former Aladdin employees were arrested in the 2015 sting.


Peter B.:Our response to those arrests was to bring in an outside law firm that conducted an investigation. As a result of that investigation, we terminated two of the employees.


Sukey Lewis:Did they come in just to investigate these people? Or did they come in to investigate, is this more widespread? Is this happening throughout the company? Is this happening other places in California?


Peter B.:No, they were brought in specifically to look into the allegations made in Santa Clara. However, as part of our own sort of internal review, we did a few things.


Sukey Lewis:Boat says the company put in place an internal auditor to monitor the recorded calls from jail and proactively look for violations of the law. The line that I’ve gotten from most people in the bail industry is that the agents doing this were just a few bad apples. But remember, dozen of bail agents, from seven different companies were involved. Prosecutor Filo says her office actually had to limit the scope of its investigation. There may have been even more agents involved but they just didn’t have the resources to keep looking. And [Filo 00:47:11] says bail capping is not just happening in her county.


Filo:I think it’s well known that it’s happening throughout out the state.


Sukey Lewis:And beyond. In 2014, investigators in New Jersey reviewed calls from more than half the state’s jails. They found bail agents were using inmates as recruiters in pretty much all of them.


So far I’ve told you about all the illegal stuff Filo learned, that the bail agents were using inmates to recruit new business, that the agents were paying those recruiters, and that a lot of this was happening out in the open.


Now I want to take you back to something Filo said right at the beginning of this story.


Filo:As a prosecutor for 17 years working on some of the most serious cases in our office, I had no idea how little I knew about bail.


Sukey Lewis:But these cases and these phone calls also opened her eyes to how legal bail deals are made. You might think once a judge sets a bail amount, that that’s a hard and fast number. But, not quite.


Filo:So as long as you can convince a bail company to bail you out, you’re out of custody.


Sukey Lewis:Now this point she’s making, is really important. Judges determine who is eligible for bail, but bail agents are the ones actually deciding who gets released from jail and on what terms. Not the judge. Not law enforcement. And that convincing that Filo’s talking about, it can sound like this.


Speaker 10:Okay I have highlights, I’m five-one, what do you want to know?


Dino:Booty, booty.


Speaker 10:Oh and I have … my bra size is 40 double-D.




Sukey Lewis:Here’s a female inmate calling Dino to convince him to bail her out.


Dino:How much is your bail? How much is your bail?


Speaker 10:40 thousand. 40.


Dino:You going to be a nice lay for a fucking month.


Speaker 10:Yeah I’ll be all your [inaudible 00:49:10]. Write them up.


Dino:You’re going to do whatever I say? Whatever I want?


Speaker 10:Yes of course.


Dino:For a whole month?


Sukey Lewis:Dino told me he often joked around with inmates, talked to them on their own level. So we don’t know if this woman got out of jail by making some kind of deal with Dino, but the thing is, nobody knows the final details of any of the deals inmates make with bail agents. They’re private contracts and they’re never reviewed by a judge or a regulator.


Dino:You know we’re just, we’re trying to get business. We’re trying to help people out.


Sukey Lewis:When I met up with Dino in a stairwell of the third floor of Santa Clara County’s hall of justice, he just accepted a plea deal, three months in jail and wanted to tell his side of the story.


And I want to make a point about Dino, here. He’s in the story because he agreed to talk to me. Of all the agents who were arrested, his behavior wasn’t even the most egregious.


Dino:I help everybody and everybody bails.


Sukey Lewis:When Dino says, everybody bails, he’s point out that fierce competition in the industry has created a buyers market. A lot of bail companies offer arrestees even those charged with violent felonies zero money down payment plans. In essence, inmates can walk out of jail for free but they can end up paying off their bail debt long after their case is over.


I brought this up with Aladdin because they do off these no money or little money down payment plans. Here’s the company’s business manager, [Herb Mutter 00:50:41].


Herb M.:So there are payment plans and those are on a case-by-case basis.


Sukey Lewis:But then so the judge sets the bail amount but then the bail agent decides how much the person has to pay to get out of jail? They decide. They make the release decision.


We went back and forth on this a bunch of times with me asking, how bail deals like this protect public safety? And how this is good public policy? And Herb saying, we’re doing our job. We’re making people show up to court.


Herb M.:They make the decision on whether to post a bail bond or not, right? And once again, the bail bond is guaranteeing the appearance of the individual in court.


Sukey Lewis:Right. And that’s it.


Herb M.:That’s what the bail bond does, yes.


Speaker 1:Aladdin’s chief concern is making sure the person shows up to court because if they don’t, the company stands to lose a bunch of money, right?


I think everybody understands that the concept of bail is that someone puts money at risk to ensure that a defendant will appear in court. And it is shocking how infrequently that business model actually occurs.


Sukey Lewis:Now, Aladdin says they do pay the court when a defendant skips bail but wouldn’t tell me how much or how often. Filo says what she sees most often is not bail companies paying out to the courts or bail agents returning people who’ve skipped bail, but law enforcement picking up those same defendants and booking them back into custody.


About a year and a half after Dino and the other 30 agents were arrested, I went to the final hearing in the cases. Twenty-two agents in total accepted plea deals with sentences ranging from community service to four months jail time. No inmates were charged.


Hey! So was that it, it?


Filo:That’s it, it.


Sukey Lewis:I caught up with [Filo 00:52:43] on the street outside the courthouse. She was headed back to her office wheeling her giant stack of case files.


Filo:[crosstalk 00:52:48] yeah, I-


Sukey Lewis:What’s your overall impression?


Filo:I mean my overall impression is that it will make some impact in the industry. I do hope that at least the prosecutions themselves will cause people to pause when they’re engaging in criminal activity as it relates to bail.


Sukey Lewis:Yeah.


[crosstalk 00:53:09] and these cases have changed [Filo 00:53:10], too.


Filo:It has been an extremely eye opening experience for me.


Sukey Lewis:As a prosecutor, she’s argued in court for high bail amounts countless times. But this year, she testified before state leaders that California’s bail system needs drastic reform in order to keep defendants accountable, and to protect the public.


Al L.:That’s Sukey Lewis of KQED in San Francisco. California lawmakers are considering a bill that would significantly limit the role of for-profit bail companies. Sukey tells us that other states, including New Jersey and New Mexico, have already reformed their bail systems. But there could be nationwide changes. Federal courts are considering whether cash bail means poor people end up staying in jail unfairly in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.


Kathy [Miskowsky 00:54:14] was our lead producer this week. [Cheryl Duvall 00:54:16] edited our stories on diversion programs, along with managing editor Andy [Donoghue 00:54:21] with help from Jennifer [LaFleur 00:54:22]. Mia [Zuckercandle 00:54:24] edited our bail bond story. Jim [Briggs 00:54:26] is our lead sound designer and engineer. He had help this week from [Catherine Raymondo 00:54:30] and [Kat Schuknit 00:54:31]. Original music and mixing this week by [inaudible 00:54:34]. Amy [Pile 00:54:35] is our editor in chief, Suzanne [Reiber 00:54:37] is our executive editor. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan, and our theme music is by [Commorado 00:54:42], light.


Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation. The Ford Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Siemmons Foundation, 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.


 Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:55:14]

Hannah Young is the former the Director of Audience at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, leading Reveal’s digital and social efforts. Using human-centered design, she and her team work to find new ways to expand the reach of Reveal’s journalism and engage more meaningfully with audiences across platforms.

Previously, Hannah was a Butler Koshland Fellow at Reveal focusing on creative engagement approaches in public journalism. Before that, Hannah worked at Code for America, where she led the Brigade program and grew it to a network of more than 50,000 civic tech volunteers in more than 80 cities across the U.S. During her time there, Brigade was responsible for nearly two thirds of total growth in the civic tech community in the country.

Cheryl Devall is a senior radio editor at Reveal. She is a native Californian with Louisiana roots from which storytelling runs deep. As an editor and correspondent, she's worked for the Daily World in Opelousas, Louisiana (the birthplace of zydeco music); Southern California Public Radio; National Public Radio; “Marketplace;” The Mercury News in San Jose, California; and the Chicago Tribune. Devall has shared in three Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards for coverage of AIDS and black America, the 1992 Los Angeles riots and North Carolina 40 years after the federal war on poverty. She's based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.