by Derek Gilna
Following an investigative report by Reveal, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, at least four federal lawsuits were filed against Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR) and Simmons Foods, Inc. in October and November 2017. The suits allege that defendants sent to CAAIR by drug courts in lieu of incarceration were exploited by being required to work for little or no pay.
According to one of the complaints, filed by Arthur Copeland as lead plaintiff in a putative class action, “Defendants conspired to profit from a vulnerable workforce under the guise of providing alcohol and drug counseling and rehabilitation services to Plaintiffs ... [who] performed taxing, manual labor for Defendants in a poultry processing plant” for no wages, and were compelled to live in a dorm with bunk beds and served meals consisting of bologna sandwiches.
“Many residents of CAAIR are sent to CAAIR by Oklahoma drug courts so they can receive drug and alcohol treatment,” the complaint continued. However, there was little treatment beyond 12-step meetings held after the work day was over.
Simmons Foods is the eighteenth largest chicken processor in the United States; the company supplies chicken for Rachael Ray’s Nutrish pet food, PetSmart, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, KFC and Wal-Mart, according to Reveal.
Copeland argued in his complaint that “Defendants’ compensation scheme constitutes breach of contract, fraud, unjust enrichment, violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, Oklahoma Protection of Labor Act, Oklahoma Minimum Wage Act and Oklahoma’s Human Trafficking statutes and involuntary servitude in violation of the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution and 18 U.S.C. Sections 1584, 1585, and 1589.” See: Copeland v. CAAIR, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Okla.), Case No. 4:17-cv-00564-TCK-JFJ.
Another lawsuit filed against the same defendants stated, “Many residents of CAAIR are sent to CAAIR by Oklahoma drugs courts so that they can receive drug and alcohol treatment. Instead of providing such treatment, however, CAAIR, which is not a qualified treatment provider under the Oklahoma Drug Court Act and its implementing regulations, simply uses these men for its own benefit and for the profits of its corporate partners,” threatening them with jail time if they complain of being sick or if they miss work due to work-related injuries.
“In short, CAAIR ... operates a forced labor camp-enterprise long outlawed in Oklahoma, in the United States and indeed, throughout the civilized world,” the complaint concluded.
In a follow-up article, Reveal reported on December 4, 2017 that a drug court started by former Oklahoma Judge Thomas Landrith sent defendants to work at a Coca-Cola bottling factory, among other companies, through a rehab program known as Southern Oklahoma Addiction Recovery (SOAR). The defendants in the court-ordered program also allegedly performed yard work at Landrith’s home, and were required to obtain food stamps and turn them over to SOAR.
Landrith, who retired in 2014, serves as an unpaid board member with SOAR while volunteering as the judge over the drug court in Pontotoc County. According to state ethics rules, judges should not serve as officers of organizations that may be involved in proceedings before them, and those rules apply to retired judges.
In addition to the Ada Coca-Cola Bottling Company, SOAR participants work at a roofing firm, local motels, a business that manufacturers pillows sold at retailers like Nordstrom and Babies“R”Us, and a car wash co-owned by SOAR board member Darrell W. Thompson. Male defendants reportedly receive no pay while women keep “some” of their wages, Reveal reported.
“‘If you can’t work, your ass should not be here.’ They tell you that when you first get there,” stated SOAR participant Lee Purdy. “This ain’t the place for you if you can’t work.”
Another company that employed defendants from a court-ordered rehab program in Arkansas, the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program (DARP), said it would end that relationship after news reports of the slave-labor nature of the arrangement. Hendren Plastics, owned by Arkansas Senate majority leader Jim Hendren, manufactures dock floats sold at Wal-Mart and Home Depot; the company paid wages to DARP rather than to workers in the program.
Meanwhile, the Ada Coca-Cola plant has suspended its use of workers from SOAR, and some drug courts have stopped sending defendants to rehab work programs, too. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said he would look into allegations involving CAAIR while the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission is investigating CAAIR’s practice of keeping money from workers’ comp claims instead of giving the funds to injured workers.
Additional lawsuits against exploitive rehab work programs are expected.
Sources: www.businessinsider.com, www.newsok.com, www.thefern.org, www.arktimes.com, www.good-animal.com, www.kosu.org, www.reason.com, www.wattagnet.com, www.revealnews.com, www.theadanews.com
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