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CAAIR not care; the use of indentured labour in the modern American criminal justice system.

A contribution to the issues highlighted for Anti-Slavery Day, this a piece on the increasing presence of the use of indentured labour within the American criminal justice system.

Across the United States, judges are increasingly sending defendants to rehabilitation centres instead of prison or jail. These diversion courts have become the poster child for criminal justice reform, with stated aims of transforming lives and easing overcrowded prisons. In a developed country that has the highest prison population in the world, 724 people per 100,000 (BBC News – World Prison Populations 18/10/17) this is a laudable aim, but in the rush to spare people from prison, some judges are steering defendants into rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry, an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found. The investigation and subsequent report reveals a very dark side to the rise in drug courts of the use of rehabilitation programmes meant to steer drug abusers to treatment, rehabilitation and new lives rather than prison. The programmes promise freedom from addiction. Instead, they’ve turned thousands of men and women into indentured servants, exploiting a nationwide push to keep non-violent offenders out of prison.

The beneficiaries of these programmes span the country, from Fortune 500 companies to factories and local businesses. The people sent to these initiatives work at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Oklahoma, a construction firm in Alabama, a nursing home in North Carolina. The rehabilitation centres get paid, the participants do not. No rehabilitation initiative better exemplifies this allegiance and mutually beneficial connection to big business than CAAIR. Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery is an Oklahoma facility that receives people within state and from neighbouring states such as Arkansas, Texas and Missouri. Known as the Chicken Farm, it is nominally intended to give defendants a year of addiction treatment. It was started in 2007 by chicken company executives struggling to find workers. By forming a Christian rehab, they could supply plants with a cheap and captive labour force while helping men overcome their addictions. At some rehabilitation centres, defendants get to keep their pay. At CAAIR and many others, they do not. Legal experts said forcing defendants to work for free might violate their constitutional rights. The 13th Amendment bans slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, except as punishment for convicts. That’s why prison labour programmes are legal. But many defendants sent to programmes such as CAAIR have not yet been convicted of crimes, and some later have their cases dismissed . CAAIR has become indispensable to the criminal justice system, even though judges appear to be violating Oklahoma’s drug court law and the 13th amendment by using it in some cases. Drug courts in Oklahoma are required to send defendants for treatment at certified programmes with trained counselors and state oversight to ensure competence and suitability. CAAIR is uncertified, only one of it’s three counselors is licensed and no state agency regulates it. It relies on faith and work to treat addiction, neither of which would stand much scrutiny as to their efficacy. The criminal justice system at a local level has become an invaluable source of what can only be described as indentured labour.

About 280 men are sent to CAAIR each year, by the drug courts throughout Oklahoma, as well as Arkansas, Texas and Missouri. Instead of payment the men get bunkbeds, meals and Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. If, (a big if) there is time between work shifts, they can meet with a counselor or attend classes on anger management and parenting. Weekly bible study is mandatory. For the first four months, so is church. Most days revolve around work. Reveal quotes Janet Wilkerson, CAAIR’s founder and CEO; “Money is an obstacle for so many of these many these men” she says, “we’re not going to charge them to come here, but they’re going to have to work” ( October 4th 2017) For anyone familiar with modern slavery and it’s various insidious incarnations this sounds very like debt bonded labour, working off a debt imposed upon you by external agencies and that you cannot pay back. At CAAIR, about 200 men live on a sprawling, grassy compound in northeastern Oklahoma, and most work full time at Simmons Foods Inc., a company with annual revenue of $1.4 billion. It just announced a major expansion in Northwest Arkansas that will benefit from significant state taxpayer subsidies. They slaughter and process chickens for some of America’s largest retailers and restaurants, including Walmart, KFC and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. They also make pet food for PetSmart and Rachael Ray’s Nutrish brand. The companies do not have to pay workers’ compensation insurance, payroll taxes or medical care, they can replace the workers for any reason at any time. Despite money being an obstacle for the participants whose work keeps the programme running it is most definitely not an issue for the Wilkersons. Janet as CEO and her husband, who acts as vice president of operations, draw combined salaries that are over four times the median household income in their area.

Simmons Foods now is so reliant on CAAIR for some shifts that the plants likely would shut down if the men didn’t show up, according to former staff members and plant supervisors. Over the years, Simmons Foods repeatedly has laid off paid employees while expanding its use of CAAIR. Chicken processing plants are notoriously dangerous and understaffed. The hours are long, the pay is low and the conditions are brutal. Men in the CAAIR programme said their hands became gnarled after days spent hanging thousands of chickens from metal shackles. One man said he was burned with acid while hosing down a trailer. Others were maimed by machines or contracted serious bacterial infections. Those who were hurt and could no longer work were often kicked out of CAAIR and sent to prison, court records show. Most men worked through the pain, fearing the same fate. Reveal quotes one participant Nate Turner, who ‘graduated’ from the programme in 2015, “It’s a work camp. They know people are desperate to get out of jail, and they’ll do whatever they can to stay out of prison.” ( October 15th 2017) To unearth this story Reveal interviewed scores of former participants and employees, court officials and judges and reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents, tax filings and worker compensation records. The Reveal research purports that Simmons has laid off paid workers while expanding use of the Christian facility, something a spokesman for Simmons disputed. They also allege that Tyson Foods has also linked up with the rehab programme, which, the investigation details, has been lucrative for its founders. The report also alleges that any successful Workers Compensation claims for injured workers were paid to the centre, not the injured workers.

Reveal’s report tells the long story of such a worker, from rural Oklahoma, now addicted to pain pills from an injury with recurring symptoms, and the centre's fight to deny him benefits. The worst day of 23 year old Brad McGahey’s life was the day the judge decided to spare him from prison. His story is typical of the criminal justice system in America, he didn't actively commit a crime but because of poverty bought goods that he may or may not have known were stolen. Falling behind on payments for the resultant court fines, he faced one year in state prison, a common risk for the poorest in American society. Aside from a liking for Dr Pepper soda McGahey wasn’t addicted to anything, the court was aware of this but decided the Chicken Farm was better than prison. There wasn’t much substance abuse treatment at CAAIR anyway, what he found was a “a slave camp..I can’t believe the court sent me there” ( October 4th 2017) He also wasn’t free from the threat of jail, if he was hurt or worked too slowly, his bosses threatened him with prison. Several weeks after he arrived there Brad McGahey suffered what his medical notes described as a ‘severe crush injury’ helping free a coworker whose arm had got caught in the conveyor belt. A nurse at the plant demanded he be taken to hospital, instead of an ambulance he was driven to the local hospital where his arm was put in a splint and he was ordered not to work. CAAIR told him he had to go back to work, either at Simmon’s or around

the CAAIR campus until his hand healed, and that this work wouldn’t count towards his one-year sentence. Much like in bonded labour situations in South East Asia, additional time was added to his ‘sentence’ when he was unable to work fully through sickness. Men who are injured while at CAAIR rarely receive long term help for their injuries. The programme requires all participants to sign a form saying they are clients, not employees, and therefor have no right to worker’s compensation. Reveal found that when men got hurt, CAAIR filed worker’s compensation claims and kept the payouts. Injured workers and their families never saw a cent. Brad McGahey went straight from CAAIR to a Marshall County jail cell. Because of his occupational injury he was unable to work and was classed as having failed to complete the programme. As a result of this he was considered to have violated the terms of his probation. The judge sentenced him to a year in state prison. He was released after two months due to prison overcrowding, the ultimate irony of his long encounter with the Oklahoma courts’ rehabilitation system


Last Tuesday three participants in the programme filed a federal class-action lawsuit against CAAIR and Simmons Foods. The lawsuit alleges participants were led to believe CAAIR was a drug recovery programme aimed at helping non violent drug offenders get their lives back on track without resorting to fines or prison sentences. Instead it alleges, CAAIR and Simmons “conspired to profit from a vulnerable workforce” and failed to compensate participants for their work. It says the only payment received were “daily bologna (spam meat) sandwiches and a bunk-bed in a cramped dorm room” (Times Record - South West Times online October 10th 2017) The firm that filed the lawsuit, Smolen, Smolen and Roytman said in a statement that; “By defrauding these men and providing virtual slave labour for a private corporation, CAAIR and Simmons are not only violating longstanding labour laws, they are violating basic standards of human decency and the core concepts underpinning our constitutional democracy” ( October 10th 2017) The men are seeking more than $5 million. Their complaint alleges violations of state and federal labour laws, which requires employers to pay employees at least minimum wage and overtime for their work. The men at CAAIR made nothing. The few who successfully ‘graduated’ from the one year programme were eligible for a $1,000 gift. Among other legal issues the lawsuit alleges that the programme violates the 13th Amendment ban on slave labour and involuntary servitude. The complaint also alleges that that the programme constitutes human trafficking under Oklahoma state law and accuse CAAIR of committing fraud by not providing men with the drug and alcohol rehabilitation services they were promised. It remains to be seen if the law suit will be successful, what Reveal has done however is draw significant, much needed attention, to practices that amount to modern slavery within the American justice system, quite contrary to its stated aims of equity, fairness and protection of individual rights.


Harris A. J. and Walter S. All work No Pay, Reveal for The Center from Investigative Reporting October 4th 2017