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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Chicken processing plants are notoriously dangerous and understaffed. The hours are long, the pay is low and the conditions are brutal.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Everyone involved in this atrocity should be prosecuted to the fullest extant of the law: The people who run CAAIR, the judges who illegally send them there, the senior executives at poultry and pet food companies who knowingly used slave labor.
This is just f%$#ing evil.