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2018 Knight Award for Public Service winner

All Work. No Pay.

About the Project

Under the guise of criminal justice reform, judges, big business and rehab operators have turned people with addiction into a new class of workers, one that enjoys no rights and receives no pay.

Many never have been convicted of a crime. They are sent to a work camp, forced to slaughter chickens, care for the elderly and disabled and endure other hard labor for free, under the threat of prison. Grueling, dangerous labor is just about all the addiction treatment they get. The beneficiaries of this new brand of indentured servitude stretch from high levels of political power to Fortune 500 companies such as Coca-Cola and Walmart.

The whole system operated across the country, without scrutiny, until two committed reporters stepped in. Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter were poking around the dockets of Oklahoma courthouses on a different story when something jumped out at them: The courts sent men to what sounded like work, rather than drug rehabilitation.

As each story in the running series has published, it has had swift, deep impact. The project has forced significant changes in government and private industry across three states, spurred criminal and regulatory investigations and led to a number of ongoing lawsuits. It has liberated hundreds of people from oppressive work conditions, and given validation to people with addiction who said their complaints were ignored because of who they are, creating even more self-doubt in a population already struggling to trust themselves.

Here is a list of the highlights, so far:

  • Four class-action lawsuits have been filed against two Oklahoma rehab work camps — Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery and Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program — and the companies they work with, alleging participants were modern-day slaves and seeking back pay.
  • A Coca-Cola Bottling Co. suspended its use of workers from a third rehab, Southern Oklahoma Addiction Recovery, saying that it takes “the concerns that have been raised seriously.”
  • The Arkansas Senate majority leader cancelled his company’s contract with a rehab work camp, DARP.
  • The Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission has opened an investigation into CAAIR’s practice of filing workers’ comp claims on behalf of injured men and collecting the payments. “Them being ordered to work for free is nothing short of slavery,” the commissioner told us.
  • North Carolina’s governor ordered a statewide crackdown, calling the rehab that was the focus of one of our investigations, Recovery Connections Community, “horrific scheme that preys on people at their lowest.”
  • North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said his office is coordinating criminal and regulatory investigations across numerous local and state agencies. “The idea that people coming to a program for help were victimized instead is sickening,” he said.
  • The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services ordered Recovery Connections to stop sending rehab participants to work as caregivers at adult care homes.
  • The state Department of Public Safety banned anyone on probation from attending the rehab program.