Another suit filed over unpaid labor for drug court participants | Arkansas Blog

Another suit filed over unpaid labor for drug court participants

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The ACLU of Oklahoma filed another lawsuit today over forced labor by drug court participants who worked unpaid while rehabilitation agencies received their pay under contracts with private companies.

The suit targets the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program and alleges human trafficking and labor law violations. The ACLU said DARP facilities in Tahlequah and Decatur, Ark., have been "running an unpaid labor camp disguised as a rehabilitation center for the last decade."

The practices have been detailed in a massive reporting project by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Many of the workers have been put into labor-hungry poultry processing operations of Simmons Foods, but some also went to Hendren Plastics, the company headed by Republican Majority Leader Sen. Jim Hendren. He said yesterday, after filing of a state lawsuit in Benton County, that he was stopping his participation in the program because of the publicity. He says he believed he was helping people in the program by paying DARP for workers they provided to him. Hendren  said he didn't  know the arrangements between DARP and people working off drug court requirements. They said they weren't paid. Simmons Food has said it employs more than 100 workers through the programs.

The new suit names both Simmons and Hendren Plastics  as well as two Oklahoma companies, R&R Engineering Co., and Western Alliance, Inc. (formerly Jer-Co Industries, Inc.). DARP is said to operate work camps in Tahlequah and Decartur holding up to 80 people at a time. They are sent to employers in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Workers get no money save a discretionary bonus of $500 to $1,000 after six months of work. The plaintiffs in the new suit all came from Oklahoma drug court assignments.

From an ACLU release:

“At the time, going to D.A.R.P. seemed like my only option,” said Shane Norrid, a former Drug Alcohol Recovery Program participant and plaintiff in the ACLU of Oklahoma’s suit. “I was told I would avoid prison and that I would get treatment to help change my life, but I saw almost as soon as I got there that this program wasn’t what I expected treatment to be. The Drug Alcohol Recovery Program did not give me the help I needed.” [The suit said he worked at Hendren Plastics from March through September 2016. DARP or Raymond Jones got money from a contract with Hendren, the worker got no money, the suit says.]

The ACLU filed a class action on behalf of seven plaintiffs and others like them, each with their own harrowing stories of forced, unpaid labor, dangerous working conditions, cruel treatment, and unsanitary living conditions while participating in the Drug Alcohol Recovery Program. The plaintiffs were lead to believe their time in the program would be focused on healing and addiction recovery. Instead, these plaintiffs were forced into a human trafficking scheme and remained under threat of prison sentences if they did not complete the program by providing hundreds or thousands of hours of unpaid labor to the Drug Alcohol Recovery Program and private corporations, doing such work as welding, plastic product manufacturing, and chicken processing. Many of these businesses, who knowingly benefited from forced labor trafficking, are also named as defendants in the suit, including Hendren Plastics, Inc., R&R Engineering Co., Inc., Simmons Foods, Inc., and Western Alliance, Inc. (formerly Jer-Co Industries, Inc.).

Individuals at both facilities were fed one bologna sandwich for lunch each day [also an "expired" Litle Debbie snack cake, said one plaintiff], and often, that’s all they had to eat for an entire 12 hour shift doing manual labor. Drug Alcohol Recovery Program participants at the Tahlequah facility were fed spoiled or otherwise unmarketable chicken from the program’s processing plant five nights per week. At each facility, men lived in cramped quarters with a bed bug infestation that caused bleeding wounds.

“Oklahomans dealing with addiction deserve quality treatment, but instead, victims of this scheme found themselves forced to work without pay and live in inhumane conditions,” said Brady Henderson, ACLU of Oklahoma Legal Director. “It is absolutely unacceptable to take advantage of people in such a vulnerable position, and we hope with our stand today, we can help to end these abuses before more people are caught up in this or similar scams.”

While at the Drug Alcohol Recovery Program, participants were subject to long days of labor for the program and private corporations. All of their pay was turned over to the Drug Alcohol Recovery Program or its president, Raymond Jones. Participants were unable to file taxes or claim workers compensation or unemployment benefits for their time in the program.

Instead of the help with addiction recovery they expected or needed, the Drug Alcohol Recovery Program participants were provided little to no services that could be considered legitimate addiction treatment. Participants in Tahlequah went to one AA meeting per week in Hulbert, Oklahoma. Participants at the Decatur facility held their own “in-house” meetings, where the participants sat in a room together and read from a Twelve Step book, sometimes after a 10-12 hour work day.

“Alternatives to incarceration are an important component to battling our mass incarceration crisis,” said Henderson. “But profiteering schemes like D.A.R.P. are not the answer. Without proper oversight, medically qualified counselors and meaningful services, incarceration alternatives like this one are ripe for abuse.”

The suit said plaintiff Norrid suffered a hernia while working at Hendren and, had he not been a Native American and entitled to medical care from Indian Health Services, he'd have had to stop work. He said he was prohibited from using a personal phone and had little contact with the outside world. He said he was made to attend Pastor Glenn Whitman's church in Gravette each Sunday. The suit said controlled drugs were widely available in the rehab facilities. Norrid said the only "clean" person he could recall was a sober biker who came to speak to the group.


You can read the full lawsuit here.



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