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Arkansas and Oklahoma Rehab Programs Sued for Using Court-ordered Defendants for Forced Labor

by David Reutter

A federal lawsuit filed in October 2017 accuses an Arkansas-based drug rehab center of “human trafficking and forced labor” for abusing a court-ordered pre-trial diversion program. The rehab center reportedly compelled defendants to provide cheap labor for welding companies, chicken processing plants and manufacturers – including a plastics firm owned by state Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren.

The Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program (DARP) is supposed to provide substance abuse treatment as an alternative to prison. Courts in both Arkansas and Oklahoma send defendants to DARP, with a stern warning that failure to complete the program will result in jail or prison time. [See: PLN, Jan. 2018, p.8].

With a second facility in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, DARP enrolls as many as 80 men at any given time, who work for no pay. Founder Raymond Jones and Pastor Glenn E. Whitman, who run the non-profit, were named as defendants in the suit. In addition to Hendren’s company, Hendren Plastics, Inc., DARP provided workers to R&R Engineering, Inc., Western Alliance, Inc. (formerly known as Jer-Co Industries, Inc.) and Simmons Foods, Inc. Those companies were also named in the lawsuit.

“This forced labor scheme was developed by defendant Raymond Jones in conjunction with others in the poultry processing industry, who together created a pipeline for forced labor performed under threats of imprisonment and judicial punishment,” the complaint states. “To accomplish this, Jones and the poultry processor Peterson Farms, now owned by defendant Simmons Foods, Inc., created DARP, a purportedly ‘not for profit’ organization which operates labor camps to house workers under the guise of rehabilitation and recovery services.”

The scheme worked so well that Simmons reportedly laid off paid employees due to the use of cheap DARP workers. According to former staff and supervisors, the firm became so reliant on labor from participants in pre-trial diversion programs that plants would be forced to shut down without them.

Simmons Foods responded to the lawsuit with a statement that it “has no current relationship whatsoever with DARP,” and promised to “use every resource at our disposal to vigorously defend the company.” The firm reported annual revenue of $740 million, with 4,700 workers at six facilities in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

The ACLU of Oklahoma filed the class-action suit, which claims that DARP participants “were made to perform thousands of hours of uncompensated labor for the for-profit businesses and individuals and given little drug treatment.”

“Oklahomans healing with addiction deserve quality treatment, but instead, victims of this scheme found themselves forced to work without pay and live in inhumane conditions,” said ACLU of Oklahoma legal director Brady Henderson.

Hendren Plastics insisted that its hands were clean because it paid DARP for the labor – at a rate of $9.25 per hour for each worker, according to Senator Hendren.

“We paid for every dime of labor we received,” he said. “I was not privy to the agreement between the program and the participants.”

Once at DARP, participants are required to work five or six days a week for one of the private companies that contract with the rehab program. The businesses pay a discounted labor rate to DARP, which keeps all of the wages, leaving participants to work without pay or face jail or prison time if they refuse.

DARP noted, however, that workers who complete its program are eligible for “gratuity checks” of $500 after six months or $1,000 after a year. The checks are disbursed at the discretion of Pastor Whitman.

“Because of these threats [for failing to work], myself and other residents worked through sickness and injury to avoid being sent to prison,” former DARP participant Mark Fochtman wrote in an affidavit. “I quickly learned it was not a treatment facility, but was instead a work camp.”

When an Oklahoma court ordered Shane Norrid to participate in DARP in 2016, he thought he would get help.

“I was told I would avoid prison and that I would get treatment to help change my life, but I saw almost as soon as I got there, this program wasn’t what I expected treatment to be,” he said.

When he wasn’t transported by DARP to work in a factory, Norrid was confined to a dorm infested with bed bugs.

The class-action lawsuit also alleges that program participants were not given treatment for substance abuse, and were kept in overcrowded, unsanitary housing and fed spoiled or expired food. On June 14, 2018, the case was transferred to the federal court in the Western District of Arkansas. See: Norrid v. D.A.R.P., U.S.D.C. (E.D. Okla.), Case No. 6:17-cv-00401-RAW.

Others defendants have been diverted to a similar rehab work program, Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR). Based in Oklahoma, CAAIR is the subject of another federal complaint filed by three former participants. [See: PLN, Jan. 2018, p.1].

Arthur Copeland, Brandon Spurgin and Brad McGahey, represented by the ACLU of Oklahoma and the Tulsa law firm of Smolen, Smolen & Roytman PLLC, are seeking class-action status on behalf of as many as 1,000 program participants who were falsely promised rehabilitation services, which CAAIR was not licensed to provide. Instead, as with DARP, they were sent to work at various companies for no pay.

Copeland, Spurgin and McGahey claim they were injured on the job but never received any of the worker’s compensation benefits for which CAAIR filed on their behalf.

Instead, they contend that “under the guise of providing alcohol and drug counseling and rehabilitation services,” CAAIR ran a “work camp program” in which they were “required to provide free labor for Simmons Foods under constant threat of incarceration,” while receiving no compensation and “meals consisting primarily of bologna sandwiches, as well as ... communal bunk-bed housing.” See: Copeland v. C.A.A.I.R., U.S.D.C. (N.D. Okla.), Case No. 4:17-cv-00564-TCK-JFJ.

Simmons Foods spokesman Donny Epps had no comment on the suit, except to say the company would fight it. CAAIR founder and CEO Janet Wilkerson defended her organization’s use of court-ordered defendants for cheap labor.

“Money is an obstacle for so many of these men,” she said. “We’re not going to charge them to come here, but they’re going to have to work. That’s part of recovery, getting up like you and I do every day and going to a job.”

However, since CAAIR was not certified by the state to provide substance abuse treatment services, “Those sentenced to CAAIR expecting reputable treatment were sold a false bill of goods,” said Holly Dickson, legal director of the ACLU of Arkansas. “One issue we’ve encountered is that many people who have been subject to these types of programs are afraid of filing suit or going public because they’re concerned they will end up in prison,” she added.

“Alternatives to incarceration are an important component to battling our mass incarceration crisis,” agreed Henderson, with the ACLU of Oklahoma. “But profiting schemes ... are not the answer. Without proper oversight, medically qualified counselors and meaningful services, incarceration alternatives like this are a type of abuse.”

The lawsuits against DARP and CAAIR both remain pending. 



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Related legal cases

Norrid v. D.A.R.P.

Copeland v. C.A.A.I.R.