Judge Benefited from Forced Labor 'Rehab'

By Kelly Burch 12/07/17

A retired Oklahoma judge reportedly kept wages and seized food stamp cards from participants of a court-ordered recovery program.

coca cola bottles
Free labor from court-ordered recovery.

An Oklahoma judge who has been heralded as an innovator for starting a drug court and helping divert drug offenders from jail apparently benefited from his seemingly benevolent actions, sending offenders to the rehabilitation program that he founded and even having them complete unpaid yard work on his property.

The revelations are the latest from Reveal News, which has been investigating the use of forced, unpaid labor in the treatment industry.

According to Reveal, Judge Thomas Landrith founded Southern Oklahoma Addiction Recovery (SOAR) in 2008. Participants were court-ordered to the program where they had to work at local companies including a Coca-Cola plant and a car wash owned by a SOAR board member. Their wages were kept by SOAR and the men were told to claim that they were unemployed so that they could qualify for food stamps.

“Labor conquers all,” Landrith told Reveal. “Some of those people have never worked a day in their life.” However, legal experts say that the forced labor under threat of jail was a violation of the participants’ constitutional rights.

Dustin Barnes was sent to SOAR in 2015. He found himself cleaning Landrith’s yard and said that the people who run SOAR are “crooks.” “We were cleaning brush in his creek bed behind his house,” he said. “Cleaning his gutters. Mowing his lawn. Doing hedges. He was there hanging out, like he was one of the guys.”

Lucas Allen, who was ordered to SOAR by Landrith in 2015, said he was forced to work with an injured hand. “It made me mad and feel like I really wasn’t worth nothing,” he said. “It’s like they didn’t care what happened to me.”

However, SOAR leadership insisted that hard work was the cure for addiction. “It’s the best way to re-establish some kind of self-worth in those individuals,” board President Duane Murray told Reveal. “There’s nothing better, more therapeutic than getting up and doing what everybody else does on a regularly scheduled basis.”

In addition to forcing unpaid labor, the program allegedly abused the food stamp program by taking participants to get food stamp cards and then seizing those cards, using them to purchase food for the rehab program.

“It is against the law,” Debra Martin, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, told Reveal. “The people who this happened to need to call us or email us and let us know.”

Landrith insists that the program does what it was intended to do: keep drug offenders out of jail. He said that he thinks the program will be sued, like other forced-labor programs have been. In that case, drug offenders will go to jail, he said.

“We started the SOAR program because there was no place to send anybody. It’s still that way,” he said. “I don’t know what everybody wants the endgame to be.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.