Two months ago, investigative journalists Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter published a story through the Center for Investigative Journalism’s Reveal entitled They thought they were going to rehab. They ended up in chicken plants.” It was covered by a few outlets, including Reason, the Chicago Tribune, and the Arkansas Times. I haven’t heard much about it since, though it made a Bloomberg list of good reading material (which is where I found it). 

I’m a somewhat cynical person. I understand that the world is full of horrible suffering, that nobody can pay attention to all of it, and that sometimes the natural reaction to hearing about some new depressing thing is to say “Yep, well, what do you expect?” But even though I have a certain amount of weary numbness to news stories about the criminal justice system—which, after all, just murdered an acquaintance of mine—there are still stories that stick out as especially egregious and disturbing. The Reveal investigation is one of them. It exposes a particular kind of brutal forced labor that I had no idea existed. And, assuming Harris and Walter’s reporting is sound, the story merits far more attention than it has received.

Let me just summarize what Reveal‘s report shows: in rural Oklahoma, a program called Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR) supposedly operates as a diversionary treatment program for drug offenders, that judges can sentence defendants to as an alternative to prison. In reality, CAAIR operates a labor camp, in which residents work long hours in slaughterhouses for large food companies. There is no real “treatment” to speak of, and CAAIR pockets the workers’ wages. Sometimes those sent there haven’t even committed drug offenses; it appears to exist simply to provide convict labor for large corporations.

The Reveal investigation shows that CAAIR embodies the worst trends in the exploitative prison labor system. It is uncertified and unregulated, fraudulently promising rehabilitation, but then sending people into factory farms, where they spend long days “pulling guts and stray feathers from slaughtered chickens destined for major fast food restaurants and grocery stores” including Popeyes and Wal Mart. Those who have been in it describe it as a “slave camp.”

But even worse, the work done by those sent to CAAIR is physically dangerous. The most disturbing parts of Harris and Walter’s reporting expose how workers would be mangled or maimed in slaughterhouse machinery, and the program would pocket their worker’s compensation money and threaten them with prison rather than treating them:

Men in the CAAIR program said their hands became gnarled after days spent hanging thousands of chickens from metal shackles. One man said he was burned with acid while hosing down a trailer. Others were maimed by machines or contracted serious bacterial infections. 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. “They work you to death. They work you every single day,” said Nate Turner, who graduated from CAAIR in 2015. “It’s a work camp. They know people are desperate to get out of jail, and they’ll do whatever they can do to stay out of prison.”… 

Harris and Walter tell the story of Brad McGahey, whose hand was crushed by industrial machinery while working in the program, which told him that the time he spent working during his recovery would not be counted toward his sentence:

On May 27, 2010, three months into his time at CAAIR, something went wrong. A machine dumped a mountain of parts onto the conveyor belt, causing chicken to pile up faster than he and his co-worker could sort it. As they plunged their hands into the heap of cold parts, McGahey remembers hearing a scream. His co-worker’s rubber glove was caught in the conveyor belt.

McGahey grabbed the woman’s arm, wresting her hand free. But the machine snagged his own hand. In a matter of seconds, McGahey’s wrist was jerked backward, lodged in the seams of the conveyor belt as it hurtled toward a narrow stainless steel chute overhead. Someone yanked the emergency kill cord, which should have stopped the machine, McGahey recalled. But it raced upward, dragging him along with it. He felt a flash of panic. Then an excruciating crunch. Medical notes later would say McGahey suffered a “severe crush injury.” The machine smashed his hand, breaking several bones and nearly severing a tendon in his wrist. When he finally yanked his wrist free, his hand was bent completely backward. The pain was so bad that he nearly fainted. A nurse at the plant took one look at him and called CAAIR. “The kid’s hand is mangled!” he recalled the nurse screaming into the phone. “He needs help!” McGahey expected an ambulance. Instead, one of CAAIR’s top managers picked him up at the plant and drove him to the local hospital. Doctors took X-rays of McGahey’s hand, gave him a splint and ordered him not to work. Back at CAAIR, he spent a sleepless night cradling his throbbing hand. He figured it would take months to heal and planned to rest. But CAAIR’s administrators would have none of it. They called McGahey lazy and accused him of hurting himself on purpose to avoid working, former employees said. CAAIR told him that he had to go back to work – either at Simmons or around the campus until his hand healed, which wouldn’t count toward his one-year sentence. Wilkerson said she doesn’t remember the specifics of McGahey’s case but acknowledged that CAAIR has given such ultimatums before.

“You can either work or you can go to prison,” McGahey remembered administrators telling him. “It’s up to you.”

Of course, insofar as the story of CAAIR is about the court system providing what amounts to slave labor for the private sector, it is not unique. Across the country, prisoners don’t just hammer out license plates. They do everything from staffing call centers to picking cotton. Programs vary widely, with some paying decently and seeming closer to meaningful rehabilitation than others. But given the infamously pitiful inmate pay scale (which can be as low as 16 cents an hour), even the conservative National Review has suggested that “prison labor walks and quacks like slavery.”

CAAIR is on the extreme end of this, though, and the details of Reveal‘s investigation should be shocking, even to the jaded. Here we have a fully dystopian criminal justice system: people convicted of nonviolent crimes are sent to become indentured servants for corporations, where their bodies are destroyed as they work in stifling, rancid slaughterhouses, with no compensation and little medical care. And this, of course, is considered the “merciful” alternative to prison.

It is not, then, that CAAIR is necessarily representative of the system as a whole. Harris and Walter seem to have uncovered outright fraud by the program, and theoretically some of what it does isn’t legal. But the fact that such a program can exist anywhere, brutalizing people without the country paying attention, is alarming. And this does seem to be the kind of criminal justice system we will get if we ever do decide to let the “free market” offer rehabilitative solutions for those convicted of crimes. CAAIR is a cautionary tale about what private-sector punishment might look like. (See also the way black prison laborers in the South were outsourced to do dangerous work for private interests. Though, of course, the fact that a prison is run by the state rather than a corporation is no guarantee it won’t be a slave plantation.)

There are a few important observations we can make here, both about criminal justice itself and about media. First, we can see one of the paradoxes of diversion and rehabilitation programs: around the country, drug courts that divert people into treatment rather than sending them to prison have become extremely popular. That’s a good thing: judges should be considering alternatives to prison, and using incarceration only as an absolute last resort. But every alternative requires accountability, because it’s easy to see how “rehabilitation” and “treatment” can become buzzwords, and how the opportunity for cheap labor might lead unscrupulous providers to take advantage of the push for alternatives to prison. One of the most frustrating aspects of the criminal justice system, that hinders efforts at understanding and reforming it, is just how opaque it is. It’s nearly impossible to get inside facilities to understand what’s actually going on. Prisons themselves are frequently located in remote areas and there are endless bureaucratic obstacles to getting information. I once interned at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, which conducts class action lawsuits over prison conditions, and one of the most serious challenges we faced was trying to actually understand what was really happening in the facilities. It took years, sometimes decades, of endless motions and court orders in order to get the places investigated. That’s made even harder in places like the infamous Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Mississippi, which was rife with violence and sexual abuse but operated completely out of the public eye.

CAAIR also usefully illustrates how selective, even arbitrary, national news coverage can be. It’s mysterious to me why certain stories catch fire and everybody pays attention to them, while others don’t. Certainly, I understand that entertaining things are easier to get people to read than depressing things and that there is a fairly obvious hierarchy of victims, with deaths that are (1) sensational and (2) involve Europeans or Americans attracting far more attention than other deaths. But it also sometimes seems to simply be a matter of luck: X news report happened to be picked up by X outlet which caused X commentator to see it, and everything went from there. I was kind of stunned to realize that I was the only writer I could find who was paying attention when Robert Pruett was about to be executed. only knew about Pruett because I happened to click on his website a few years back, and it’s because I knew about him that Pruett’s name got into the New York Times. That really unsettled me: the fact that national coverage was given to Pruett only because I happened to randomly stumble across a website suggested to me that journalism isn’t nearly as “systematic” as we might naturally assume. So much depends on what individual reporters choose to do: if it weren’t for Harris and Walter’s work, I wouldn’t know about CAAIR.

That seems obvious. It is. But it’s important to appreciate the implication: individual acts of journalism matter. Whether reporters have resources matters. The news doesn’t report itself, it gets made by people, and who those people are, how much time they have, and what choices they make shape what we end up learning, and what our picture of the world looks like. Current Affairs has devoted plenty of space to thrashing the New York Times for its various failings, and each of those thrashings has been richly deserved. But while I’d prefer a world in which the Times wasn’t infuriating, I’d definitely prefer an infuriating Times to no Times at all. Outlets like Current Affairs, without the money for in-depth investigative work, depend heavily on the work of on-the-ground reporters to provide sources for our work. I can write a good article analyzing the various evils of Joe Arpaio, but I can’t do it unless there are local Arizona papers doing the hard work of actually uncovering those evils to begin with.

And still, so many things pass us by, or are chatted about for a day and then we all kind of forget about them. Or they are part of the parade of “Oh Dear” stories, the ones that give us something to mutter “Oh Dear” about each morning. And even when something does get a lot of attention, it’s frequently impossible to actually translate that attention into actual changes. Back when I was in college, I became appalled by the existence of a place called the Judge Rotenberg Center, a special needs school in Massachusetts that “treats” autistic children by giving them painful electric shocks until their behavior improves. There is no place else in the country that uses this method. Experts are appalled by it. And yet the Judge Rotenberg Center has existed for decades, in the bluest of blue states. Every few years there is a scandal or an investigation and the place gets some media attention. But after spending time working in an activist group trying to get the center shut down, it became clear to me that “awareness” wasn’t really the issue. We’d pressure officials and collect signatures, and submit letters to the editor. (Actually I just rediscovered an old op-ed I wrote about the place in my school newspaper.) But there was a disconnect between the process of drawing attention and the process of actually forcing political change. I think that’s all too common in the age where protest consists of holding signs (or using hashtags): it’s not just that we don’t “do the hard work” that turns outrage into results, it’s that it’s difficult to know what the strategy for achieving those results actually looks like.

So if you ask me how to keep the CAAIR story from becoming just another one of the daily examples of how American criminal justice fails, I’m not sure I know the answer. But getting people to pay attention is still the first step. Reveal’s report is an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism, and their findings should be a national scandal.

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