In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Tulsa federal court, authorities allege that the organization Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR) operated a work camp program in which court-referred participants were “required to provide free labor for Simmons Foods, under constant threat of incarceration.” The participants also worked in poultry processing plants for other brand name competitors like Popeye’s Kitchen and KFC. They received no compensation, besides bologna sandwiches and housing at the facility in Jay, Oklahoma.
The lawsuit is on behalf of more than 1,000 individuals who went through the program. It claims that CAAIR, which is not licensed by the state in any way as a treatment program, falsely represented that participants would receive drug and alcohol counseling and rehabilitation. Instead, the organization funneled men into poultry processing plants, keeping all of their wages for itself.
Each of the three main plaintiffs received an injury while on the job, but was forced by CAAIR to continue working. A metal door fell on one in 2014, damaging his spine. CAAIR filed for worker’s compensation on his part, pocketed the $4,500 in insurance payments, and gave him nothing, the lawsuit alleges. Now he can’t work and is in chronic pain. Another man’s hand was crushed in a conveyor belt. A doctor splinted it and told him not to work. The lawsuit says CAAIR administrators told him he got injured on purpose to avoid work, called him lazy and told him “he could either work or go to prison.”
Forcing someone to work or go to jail is not the way to change a life. Rehabilitation programs have a responsibility to those who entrust them with turning their lives around. Wholesale abuse of human rights and dignity, in the name of “teaching somebody the value of hard work” as a spokesperson of CAAIR says, is completely opposite what anybody at that point in his life deserves. Oklahoma’s understaffed and underfunded rehabilitation network deserves better than a non-licensed operator funneling vulnerable people into factory jobs to profiteer off their situation in life.
Those suffering from addiction clearly need help. Often times, rehabilitation centers offer services that prepare the person to enter the workforce upon completion. However, CAAIR’s only program is factory labor. It kept all the profits earned by the participants. The only thing promised to the participant was a $1,000 “gift” upon successful completion of the 12 month program. It remains unclear if any of the over 1,000 individuals who went into the program ever received this gift.
Successful rehab programs do exist. See California’s initiative to arm inmates with coding knowledge. Or Texas’s initiative to teach recovering abusers and inmates alike business skills, so they can become contributing members of society. This is not an equation that’s hard to solve. Oklahoma could look to these other states and set up similar programs. Rehab that incorporates work makes a lot of sense. It teaches responsibility and it teaches commitment. However, when that rehab becomes dependent on working without pay, without treatment and without resources to help the person in need, it ceases to be rehabilitation and becomes for-profit abuse.
Profiting off of somebody’s misfortune by offering him a leg up in life, only to rip the support out from under him, is shameful. This situation smacks of abuse of the powerless. Not only does this give Oklahoma yet another social black eye (see overfilled prisons, overworked and underfunded teachers), but it’s a black eye for the good operators in the state’s rehabilitation system. Oklahomans in need deserve, and in fact need, better.