Amid a surging epidemic, American Rehab exposed how rehab facilities and their corporate partners exploit people who are in desperate need of treatment.
The series traces a decades-long history of unpaid labor in drug rehabs – known as “work therapy” – popularized by a swinging cult in the 1950s that forced vasectomies and tried to kill a lawyer by rattlesnake. Then a cowboy conman brought the model into the ’80s and introduced it to President Ronald Reagan. Today, it’s a formidable presence in the drug treatment industry, turning tens of thousands of people with addiction into an unpaid shadow workforce.
At least 60,000 people a year are being put to work like this, instead of getting access to evidence-based treatment for their life-threatening addictions, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found. They climb scaffolding hundreds of feet in the air to repair oil rigging, hoist boxes in sweltering warehouses, clean hospitals, work in factories and fix electrical wiring. They cook at university dining halls and care for patients in assisted living facilities. They work dangerous jobs with inadequate training for up to 80 hours a week. We found dozens of serious injuries and even deaths on job sites. Meanwhile, the rehabs make millions through this exploited labor force, likely violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.
And it’s having an impact. In a year when more people in the U.S. died of drug overdoses than ever before, federal lawmakers began investigating the widespread practice of unpaid labor at rehabs.
Prompted by a request from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin citing our reporting, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has announced plans to investigate work-based drug and alcohol rehabs in 2021. Our reporting also sparked numerous federal class-action lawsuits, canceled contracts and led to a criminal investigation in Louisiana. It led to the closure of one rehab facility, prompted shareholder activism that pressured Walmart to change its supply chain policies and spurred the Massachusetts attorney general and California Department of Health Care Services to open investigations into work-based rehabs.
This series was born out of reporting by Shoshana Walter and Amy Julia Harris. It was originally conceived as a series by lead producer Laura Starecheski. Walter was lead reporter and producer, Ike Sriskandarajah was a reporter and series producer, and Harris was a contributing reporter. It was edited by Brett Myers.