They Thought They Were Going to Rehab. They Ended Up in Chicken Plants - Page 4

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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But affordable treatment is in short supply. Drug court defendants have waited up to nine months for a bed in a residential treatment facility, meanwhile relapsing or languishing in jail. As a result, some courts turn to uncertified programs such as CAAIR, even though it might violate the law, according to the law’s authors.

“That is insanity gone to sea,” former state Sen. Dick Wilkerson said when told of Reveal’s findings. (He is not related to CAAIR’s founder.) “That’s illegal. They can’t do that. That is the law, and it has to be followed.”


In Pontotoc County, Judge Thomas Landrith sometimes uses CAAIR in place of certified treatment. He said there’s never a wait list, and it costs the courts and state nothing.

“We tried to get residential treatment programs down here, but we never could really pull it off,” he said. “So recovery programs kind of fit that niche.”

Other judges said they were unaware of the law or have found ways around it.

Tulsa’s drug court, which sends the most defendants to CAAIR, said the law permits judges to use uncertified programs, as long as it’s not for treatment.

“The referral is to assist the participants in developing good job skills, life skills, work ethics and personal care skills,” said Vicki Cox, court administrator. “Participants are not sent to CAAIR for drug or alcohol treatment.”

But Reveal found that Tulsa’s drug court staff repeatedly described CAAIR as treatment in court records. Cox dismissed that as a record-keeping error.


Oklahoma’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services funds and monitors drug courts. The agency knows that judges are using uncertified providers such as CAAIR, but officials say there’s little they can do. All they can do is cut some of the funding to drug courts that use those programs. But that’s little disincentive to judges.

No drug court judge has ever been disciplined for using uncertified programs, according to the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints.

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Brad McGahey went straight from CAAIR to a Marshall County jail cell. Because he failed to complete the program, he had violated the rules of his probation. The judge sentenced him to a year in state prison.

McGahey was released after two months due to prison overcrowding.

After Brad McGahey injured his hand and left CAAIR, a judge sentenced him to a year in state prison. He was released after two months due to overcrowding. Credit: Oklahoma Department of Corrections

His injury had not improved. One minute, his hand throbbed with pain. The next, it tingled and went numb. Sometimes it turned blue.

He found a lawyer and went to court for workers’ compensation. The process was slow, and CAAIR fought him every step of the way. In court in 2012, the program’s attorneys argued that McGahey’s recurring symptoms weren’t the result of the accident in the chicken plant.

“If you want to get a lie detector test up here, I’ll pay for it,” McGahey blurted in the middle of his testimony. “I know what happened. … I ain’t no liar, and you’re calling me one.”

The judge sided with McGahey. “Sounds like you’ve succeeded successfully in delaying the treatment for this person, counselor,” the judge told CAAIR’s attorney.

Three years after the accident, McGahey finally got his surgery. But it didn’t help.

“I believe that we got to Bradley so late in his treatment … that Bradley is going to have a permanent problem with his hand,” the doctor wrote in a status update to the court in September 2013.

McGahey grew depressed. He sold his four-wheeler to pay off his $500-per-month child support debt. He tried welding for two weeks, but his hand injury got in the way. He sought out other opportunities, such as trading and selling used cars, junk and metal. But something always went wrong, and he got into more trouble with the law.

When CAAIR’s attorney offered a settlement, McGahey took it. In 2014, he got a lump sum of $11,000.

But today, the pain persists. All that seems to help, McGahey says, are pain pills.

Every morning and throughout the day, McGahey chugs a can of Dr Pepper with hydrocodone pills. When his doctor cut him off from his various medications, McGahey found another doctor to write a prescription.

Before CAAIR, McGahey had no interest in drugs. Now, he says he can’t live without them

“I’m addicted to them pills,” McGahey said. “I have to take them.”


Brad McGahey had surgery on his left hand in 2013, but today, the pain persists. All that seems to help, he says, are pain pills. Credit: Olivia Merrion/Reveal

As McGahey sat on a plastic chair in front of his mother’s house, littered with items scavenged from garage sales, he remembered when he still had the use of two hands, when he was good at rodeo and could work on his family’s farm.

“When you can’t do something you love and it’s the only thing you ever known, then it’s taking part of your life away from you,” he said. “I’ve accepted it now and learned how to do with what I got. I just don’t want to see it ruin somebody else’s life.”

Courts still send defendants to CAAIR, and the program is expanding. Simmons Foods even donated funds for a third dormitory to house dozens more men.

“I was walking in the parking lot of the Simmons plant, and (Chairman) Mark Simmons told me he needed more men,” Wilkerson told a local reporter at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2015. “I told him to build me another dorm.”

CAAIR is now planning a fourth dormitory. It’s supposed to be the biggest yet.

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.

This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.

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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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