America’s penal system is broken, exploitative and unethical, but its gross inhumanity hardly starts at the doors of prisons. An ongoing report from Reveal, a publication from the Center for Investigative Reporting, found judges in Oklahoma are tricking addicts into agreeing to slave labor instead of prison sentences.
Reveal’s first story begins in Delaware County, Oklahoma, at a center known as the Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery (or CAAIR for short). The facility promotes itself as a Christianity-based rehabilitation center for those addicted to meth, painkillers and alcohol, but functions more like a temp work agency. It was started by Janet Wilkerson, once a human resource specialist for a farming company, when a recovered addict asked her if she’d be willing to hire addicts in his recovery program. She created her own program in 2007, but addicts sent to her, as an alternative to prison terms, are just being used as unpaid labor.
Without ever seeing a dime, participants in CAAIR work 40 hour weeks in chicken processing plants.
The program makes more than ten million dollars a year. Without ever seeing a dime, participants in CAAIR work 40 hour weeks in chicken processing plants, slaughtering livestock and preparing meat for chains like Walmart, KFC, Popeyes and PetSmart. Processing plants can be taxing work, even for those who aren’t going through withdrawal, as workers are surrounded by freezing temperatures and the stench of blood.
One 2010 participant, Brad McGahey, wasn’t even an addict. He was busted with a stolen horse trailer, and the judge thought CAAIR would instill a ‘work ethic’ in him over living in one of Oklahoma’s overcrowded prison. McGahey had his hand crushed by a conveyor belt during a workplace accident, the injury worsened when the emergency stop didn’t respond. Unable to work, CAAIR rejected him from completing the program, and McGahey was forced to go to prison anyway.
Today, McGahey’s unable to hold a job due to his injury and, in a crueler twist, has become addicted to painkillers. In another incident, after one of their participants had their spine damaged by a malfunctioning metal door, CAAIR ended up pocketing the worker’s comp.
Another Oklahoma judge, Thomas Landrith, once hailed as a hero of criminal justice reform, was discovered for similarly sending addicts to a Coca-Cola bottling plant instead of a traditional recovery program. That program was called the Southern Oklahoma Addiction Recovery, or SOAR. Since the investigation, Coca-Cola has said they’d be looking into SOAR, while the state itself has decided to investigate food stamp fraud.
The 13th amendment prohibits slavery in the United States, but it has a controversial caveat when it comes to the incarcerated, who can essentially be utilized as slave labor. This allows private prisons to turn profits out of prisoners, a toxic incentive to send low-level offenders to jail. Last year, Mother Jones published a shocking expose from a reporter who went undercover as a private prison guard. As wildfires spread throughout California, the state has turned to inmate firefighters, who are getting paid only a dollar an hour for risking their lives.
Noah Zatz, a labor law professor at UCLA, told Reveal “you’ve got to be kidding me” in response to CAAIR. Programs like CAAIR and SOAR may be flat out breaking the 13th amendment. Addicts sent to recovery programs are not convicts, as these programs are supposed to prevent a prison sentence. If anything, these programs are simply piggybacking on the fact that, regardless of the law, states have historically treated drug addicts as criminals and, at worst, subhuman.