They Thought They Were Going to Rehab. They Ended Up in Chicken Plants

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They Thought They Were Going to Rehab. They Ended Up in Chicken Plants

By Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter for Reveal 10/10/17

The programs promise freedom from addiction. Instead, they’ve turned thousands of men and women into indentured servants.

Image: 
A man in a yellow work suit walks towards a factory, dead chickens hang from above, text reads: All Work No Pay.
Men sent to Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, better known as CAAIR, work full time at chicken processing plants. The hours are long, the conditions are brutal and the program keeps all the wages. Credit: Gabriel Hongsdusit/Reveal

The worst day of Brad McGahey’s life was the day a judge decided to spare him from prison.

McGahey was 23 with dreams of making it big in rodeo, maybe starring in his own reality TV show. With a 1.5 GPA, he’d barely graduated from high school. He had two kids and mounting child support debt. Then he got busted for buying a stolen horse trailer, fell behind on court fines and blew off his probation officer.


Standing in a tiny wood-paneled courtroom in rural Oklahoma in 2010, he faced one year in state prison. The judge had another plan.

“You need to learn a work ethic,” the judge told him. “I’m sending you to CAAIR.”


Credit: Olivia Merrion/Glassbreaker Films

McGahey had heard of Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery. People called it “the Chicken Farm,” a rural retreat where defendants stayed for a year, got addiction treatment and learned to live more productive lives. Most were sent there by courts from across Oklahoma and neighboring states, part of the nationwide push to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison.

Aside from daily cans of Dr Pepper, McGahey wasn’t addicted to anything. The judge knew that. But the Chicken Farm sounded better than prison.

A few weeks later, McGahey stood in front of a speeding conveyor belt inside a frigid poultry plant, pulling guts and stray feathers from slaughtered chickens destined for major fast food restaurants and grocery stores.


There wasn’t much substance abuse treatment at CAAIR. It was mostly factory work for one of America’s top poultry companies. If McGahey got hurt or worked too slowly, his bosses threatened him with prison.

And he worked for free. CAAIR pocketed the pay.

“It was a slave camp,” McGahey said. “I can’t believe the court sent me there.”

Soon, it would get worse.

***

Records show that courts send about 280 men to CAAIR each year, coming from throughout Oklahoma, along with some from Arkansas, Texas and Missouri. Credit: Shoshana Walter/Reveal

Across the country, judges increasingly are sending defendants to rehab instead of prison or jail. These diversion courts have become the bedrock of criminal justice reform, aiming to transform lives and ease overcrowded prisons.

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 programs promise freedom from addiction. Instead, they’ve turned thousands of men and women into indentured servants.

The beneficiaries of these programs span the country, from Fortune 500 companies to factories and local businesses. The defendants work at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Oklahoma, a construction firm in Alabama, a nursing home in North Carolina.

Perhaps no rehab better exemplifies this allegiance to big business than CAAIR. 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 labor force while helping men overcome their addictions.

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. 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.


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. Credit: Shane Bevel for Reveal

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 program 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 often were kicked out of CAAIR and sent to prison, court records show. Most men worked through the pain, fearing the same fate.

“They work you to death. They work you every single day,” said Nate Turner, who graduated from CAAIR in 2015. “It’s a work camp. They know people are desperate to get out of jail, and they’ll do whatever they can do to stay out of prison.”

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 workers’ compensation records.

At some rehabs, 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 labor programs are legal. But many defendants sent to programs such as CAAIR have not yet been convicted of crimes, and some later have their cases dismissed.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Noah Zatz, a professor specializing in labor law at UCLA, said when presented with Reveal’s findings. “That’s a very strong 13th Amendment violation case.”

CAAIR has become indispensable to the criminal justice system, even though judges appear to be violating Oklahoma’s drug court law by using it in some cases, according to the law’s authors.

Drug courts in Oklahoma are required to send defendants for treatment at certified programs with trained counselors and state oversight. CAAIR is uncertified. Only one of its three counselors is licensed, and no state agency regulates it.

The program mainly relies on faith and work to treat addiction.

Sharon Cain runs the drug court in rural Stephens County and decides where to send defendants for treatment. She said state regulators don’t stop her from using CAAIR.

“I do what I wanna do. They don’t mess with me,” she said. “And I’m not saying that in a cocky way. They just know I’m going to do drug court the way I’ve always done it.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma now is considering legal action in response to Reveal’s reporting.

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