They Thought They Were Going to Rehab. They Ended Up in Chicken Plants - Page 3

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

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McGahey grabbed the woman’s arm, wresting her hand free. But the machine snagged his own hand. In a matter of seconds, McGahey’s wrist was jerked backward, lodged in the seams of the conveyor belt as it hurtled toward a narrow stainless steel chute overhead. Someone yanked the emergency kill cord, which should have stopped the machine, McGahey recalled. But it raced upward, dragging him along with it.

He felt a flash of panic. Then an excruciating crunch.


Medical notes later would say McGahey suffered a “severe crush injury.” The machine smashed his hand, breaking several bones and nearly severing a tendon in his wrist. When he finally yanked his wrist free, his hand was bent completely backward. The pain was so bad that he nearly fainted.

A nurse at the plant took one look at him and called CAAIR.

“The kid’s hand is mangled!” he recalled the nurse screaming into the phone. “He needs help!”

McGahey expected an ambulance. Instead, one of CAAIR’s top managers picked him up at the plant and drove him to the local hospital. Doctors took X-rays of McGahey’s hand, gave him a splint and ordered him not to work.

Back at CAAIR, he spent a sleepless night cradling his throbbing hand. He figured it would take months to heal and planned to rest. But CAAIR’s administrators would have none of it.

They called McGahey lazy and accused him of hurting himself on purpose to avoid working, former employees said. CAAIR told him that he had to go back to work – either at Simmons or around the campus until his hand healed, which wouldn’t count toward his one-year sentence.


Wilkerson said she doesn’t remember the specifics of McGahey’s case but acknowledged that CAAIR has given such ultimatums before.

“You can either work or you can go to prison,” McGahey remembered administrators telling him. “It’s up to you.”

He already had made up his mind.

“I’ll take prison over this place,” he said. “Anywhere is better than here.”

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Olivia Merrion/Glassbreaker Films

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Most men sent to CAAIR are addicted to alcohol, meth, heroin or pain pills. They are usually young, white and can’t afford stays in private rehab programs.

Inside CAAIR’s dormitories, Bible verses and Simmons Foods posters line the walls. Participants usually sleep six to a room, crammed onto wooden bunk beds. They attend church services in a common room down the hall, decorated with quilts and wooden crosses.

During the one-year program, the men can’t have cellphones or money. If they relapse or break the rules, they can be kicked out or punished with extra time. In 2014, CAAIR reported that about 1 in 4 men completed the program.

Former employees said work takes priority over everything. If counseling or classes interfered with the job, the decision was clear. “It’s work,” said Aaron Snyder, who participated in the program and later worked as a dorm manager. “You’re going to work.”

The men also perform free labor for CAAIR’s founders, family and friends. A group of men said they helped remodel the Wilkersons’ master bedroom. Another said he helped one of their daughters pack boxes and move. Still others worked on an egg farm owned by the Wilkersons’ other daughter. The program told the courts that it was community service, according to employees.

The strict regimen has helped some men get clean. Those who arrive without a home, steady employment or food said they find their basic needs met at CAAIR. Those who complete the program without breaking any rules are eligible for a gift of $1,000 when they graduate.

“I have to say CAAIR was the hardest thing to do in my life,” said Bradley Schott, who graduated in 2014. “I went to basic training at 16. And (Army) Ranger school. And it wasn’t as hard as CAAIR, mentally or physically. But it saved my life.”

Jim Lovell, CAAIR’s vice president of program management, said there’s dignity in work.

“If working 40 hours a week is a slave camp, then all of America is a slave camp,” he said.

Men who were injured while at CAAIR rarely receive long-term help for their injuries. That’s because the program requires all men to sign a form stating that they are clients, not employees, and therefore have no right to workers’ comp. Reveal found that when men got hurt, CAAIR filed workers’ comp claims and kept the payouts. Injured men and their families never saw a dime.


Following Brandon Spurgin’s chicken plant injury, CAAIR filed for workers’ compensation on his behalf. CAAIR got $4,500 in insurance payments and Spurgin says he got nothing. Credit: Shane Bevel for Reveal

Brandon Spurgin was working in the chicken plants one night in 2014 when a metal door crashed down on his head, damaging his spine and leaving him with chronic pain, according to medical records. CAAIR filed for workers’ compensation on his behalf and took the $4,500 in insurance payments. Spurgin said he got nothing.

Janet Wilkerson acknowledged that’s standard practice.

“That’s fraudulent behavior,” said Eddie Walker, a former judge with the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission. He said workers’ comp payments are required to go to the injured worker. “What’s being done is clearly inappropriate.”

Three years later, Spurgin’s still in pain and can no longer hold a full-time job.

In addition to injuries, some men at CAAIR experience serious drug withdrawal, seizures and mental health crises, according to former employees. But the program doesn’t employ trained medical staff and prohibits psychiatric medicine.

A judge in Tulsa sent Donald Basford to CAAIR in 2014 despite a documented history of severe mental health problems. The 36-year-old quickly unraveled, repeatedly complaining to staffers that he was “losing it” without his medication, Snyder, the former employee, recalled.

Basford ran away and was found dead inside a car in a church parking lot a few weeks later, according to an autopsy report. Medical examiners found no drugs in his badly decomposed body and weren’t able to determine Basford’s cause of death.

Other CAAIR men who had mental breakdowns or manic episodes were kicked out, according to former employees, opening the door for them to be sent to prison.

“You just don’t do that to people who obviously need some kind of help,” Snyder said. “It’s not right.”

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CAAIR has a sprawling, grassy compound in northeastern Oklahoma. The one-year diversion program mainly relies on faith and work to treat addiction. Credit: Shane Bevel for Reveal

When the Oklahoma Legislature created the state’s drug court requirements 20 years ago, it was part of a growing realization nationwide of the costs – both financial and human – of handing down long prison sentences for drug-related charges.

In drug court, judges are required to put defendants through treatment rather than prison. Follow the rules, and defendants can have their cases dismissed.

Lawmakers wanted to ensure the quality of treatment, so they wrote an important provision into state law: Drug courts must use treatment providers inspected and certified by the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

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Amy Julia Harris can be reached at [email protected], and Shoshana Walter can be reached at [email protected]. Follow them on Twitter: @amyjharris and @shoeshine.

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