Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

"Work Therapy"—How the Salvation Army's Chain of Rehabs Exploits Unpaid Labor

By Kenneth Anderson, The Influence

Normally when we hear about people who use drugs being sent to forced labor camps as so-called “addiction treatment,” we think of places like Vietnam, China or the former Soviet Union. Surely nothing like this could happen in America?

But the civil rights of people who use drugs are not protected in this country. They are often unconstitutionally sentenced to religious programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Many others, as Influence columnist Maia Szalavitz has documented, may be incarcerated indefinitely in so-called “tough love” programs.

Another sinister example is the unpaid “work therapy” which constitutes addiction treatment at the Salvation Army’s drug rehabilitation centers, known as the Adult Rehabilitation Centers (ARC) programs.

There are 119 ARC rehabs in the US, operating from coast to coast; an estimated 150,000 people go through this program each year. An average of 7,700 people live in the Salvation Army’s US rehabs at any given time.

I first heard about these programs from their clients years ago, when I did a stint as a cashier for minimum wage in the now-defunct Salvation Army store in Little Canada, Minnesota.

The guys who had been sent over from the rehab program for their work detail would be bumming cigarettes off me; they could not buy even rolling tobacco, since their allowance for working a 40-hour week was two dollars per day. I realized how well-off I was in comparison, since I could afford a can of Bugler rolling tobacco easily on minimum wage.

Even then, I thought it was important that someone expose what is essentially slavery by writing about it, which I am finally doing now. I have verified the facts by corresponding with the main office of the Salvation Army. Don Coombs, program director of the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center Command, Eastern Territory, sent the information to me via email and I obtained written permission to cite him as my source.

The Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) program is entirely residential and is always offered free of charge. Coombs stated that most clients are either homeless or court-ordered. The basic program lasts from six to 12 months, depending on the client.

Should they decide to leave the program, their only options are often to go to prison (if they are court-ordered) or to return to living on the streets.

What does therapy in ARC consist of? The primary form is “work therapy.” In exchange for three hots and a cot, the Salvation Army’s rehab clients are expected to labor for 40 hours a week, without pay, for the profit of the Salvation Army stores.

“Work is used as a therapy to assist persons in learning how to be of service to GOD and others…” Coombs wrote. “[clients] receive no financial wage or other compensation.”

The work consists of some pretty tedious and foul jobs, such as sorting through donations of clothing and other items to be sold in Salvation Army stores (such donations are often tainted with feces or vomit), and bailing up unsalable items for shipment overseas. Other forms of “work therapy” may involve moving furniture or janitorial work, including cleaning toilets.

What sort of services do clients receive in return for this?

According to the Salvation Army’s email, residents are typically housed four to 20 persons per room. In addition to work therapy, other therapy consists of mandatory Bible study and mandatory participation in Salvation Army worship services.

According to Coombs: “The ARC provides individual counseling for both spiritual and character formation. We also provide both education and group services as well. Clinical services for mental health and/or chemical dependency most likely are referred to local agencies.”

He also stated stated: “Most centers do provide information on attending 12 Step meetings. However, beneficiaries are encouraged to develop a ‘self-help support system’ that is often beyond a 12 Step group. For example, some may attend a weight loss group, bereavement support group, outside church services, Celebrate Recovery, and a host of other approaches that they find helpful. All persons are required to develop a self-help support system, but each person’s is quite individual and reflective of their personal choices and needs.”

What sort of outcomes do these programs have? Coombs stated that no records of success rates were kept, but that the completion rate for the program was 17 percent.

Why so low? Any use of alcohol or drugs results in immediate termination from the program. However, it is also likely that many clients find they would prefer sleeping on the streets to being exploited as slave labor and having their rights to freedom of religion violated on a daily basis.

What is this charity that engages in such despicable practices?

Founded in London in 1865 by William Booth, the Salvation Army is a Christian denomination that structures its organization in a military fashion and derives its theology from Methodism. Since its inception, it has taken a prohibitionist stance towards both alcohol and tobacco.

Booth roundly condemned any form of social drinking, saying that alcohol “is an evil in itself,” that you should “never let a drop of intoxicating liquor be used as a beverage in your house for any reason whatever,” and that it is not safe for anyone ever “to take strong drink in what is called moderation.”

He described tobacco as an “enormous evil,” which “injures the brain and consequently the entire nervous system.”

The Salvation Army has not moderated its position on alcohol and tobacco in the intervening years. A 1990 position statement says: “The Salvation Army requires its members to refrain from Social Drinking.” The only change is that now, in addition to despising the use of alcohol or tobacco, the Salvation Army also focuses its abuse on people who use other drugs.

According to Forbes, the Salvation Army is currently the second largest charity in the United States, with an annual income of $4.1 billion from donations, investments, sales and other sources. Its full financials can be found here (note that all amounts are in thousands of dollars).

With this kind of budget, the Salvation Army could surely do better than sleeping 20 people to a room, using them as slave labor, and achieving a completion rate of 17 percent. Instead, they could be offering decent housing, decent wages, and the best evidence-based treatment, which includes, for example, a non-abstinence-based housing model.

It seems clear that the Salvation Army, despising people who use any drugs, believes that such people simply deserve the kind of “treatment” offered by ARC. Certainly, no expense seems to be spared when it comes to PR and self-promotion.

Although in its financial statement the Salvation Army claims that 21 percent of its expenditure, $702,539,000, is spent on “rehabilitation,” there is little evidence that this money is spent on the clients. Looking at the fact that average occupancy of the program is 7,700 clients, this would work out to over $90,000 per client year. It surely seems that clients are not receiving $90,000-a-years’ worth of services; on the contrary, the Salvation Army is receiving tens of thousands of dollars of free labor per client year.

We might be able to learn more if we could look at the organization’s tax forms. But wait—the Salvation Army is legally a church and does not file tax forms for the vast majority of its activities. The Salvation Army is comprised of six separate corporations, only one of which files a tax form: the Salvation Army World Service Office (SAWSO). And the SAWSO tax form reports an income of about $21 million—about one half of one percent of the organization’s total income.

Where does all the money go? With ads for the Salvation Army everywhere, it is clear that a good chunk is spent on self-promotion.

However, since the Salvation Army is legally a church, it can also give its officers free housing, free vehicles, free health insurance, free furniture, and practically free everything else, in addition to paying them a salary, as a recent article reports.

The Salvation Army seems to be an organization primarily dedicated to “doing the most good” for itself. When it comes to people who use drugs, a more fitting motto would be “doing the most harm.”

An America where people are forced to labor without compensation under threat of prison is not an America that I can support. Everyone should have the right to decide what to put into their own body, and people who use drugs should not be imprisoned or exploited by the self-righteous.

There are many organizations other than the Salvation Army which will take your donations of items and actually put them to good use—such as Housing Works, which provides housing for people living with AIDS, or Goodwill, which connects people with paying jobs.

Or, do what I do. Give money directly to the panhandler and cut out the middle man. Perhaps they will spend it on alcohol or other drugs, but at least that way it might provide someone a modicum of pleasure, which beats forced labor every time.

Kenneth Anderson is the founder of the HAMS harm reduction program for alcohol, and the author of How to Change Your Drinking: A Harm Reduction Guide to Alcohol. He has worked in harm reduction since 2002, including “in the trenches” doing needle exchange in Minneapolis, serving as online director for Moderation Management, and working as director of development at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center. His last piece for The Influence was: “How American Progressivism, Imperialism and Eugenics Spawned International Drug Control.” You can follow HAMS on Twitter: @Harm_Reduction.

This article was originally published by The Influence on August 19, 2016. Reprinted with editor’s permission.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login