Reveal, the website of the Center for Investigative Reporting, has expanded its reporting on the use of drug court defendants as unpaid laborers at the plastics manufacturing company headed by Sen. Jim Hendren, the Republican majority leader, nephew of the governor and one of the most influential members of the legislature.
We noted over the weekend Hendren’s company was named as a defendant in a lawsuit by workers unpaid for work while assigned to nonprofit rehabilitation agencies by drug courts. Hendren said he paid the going rate for the workers to a nonprofit, the Drug Alcohol and Recovery Program (DARP), which oversees the drug rehabilitation program to which the men were sentenced as an alternative to jail. He told us in an e-mail message:
I’ve not seen or received anything about a lawsuit. I am proud of the work Hendren Plastics has done to try to give kids in drug rehab programs a second chance. While they are not employees of our company we pay the program for every hour they work consistent with all state and federal laws just as we do our other employees. We have also hired some to become full time employees upon completion of the program. It has been rewarding to see some of these kids turn their lives around.
The Center for Investigative Reporting has been doing groundbreaking work on the diversion of drug court defendants to work programs in Oklahoma and Arkansas, particularly in the poultry industry. The articles raise a number of questions, heavily focused on poultry industry labor, including the extent of rehabilitation offered; constitutional prohibitions against unpaid labor; failure to pay job injury benefits to the workers, and poor working conditions.
The suit last week by two plaintiffs was the first to mention Hendren Plastics. Said Reveal:
The unpaid work may violate state labor laws and the 13th Amendment ban on slavery, according to legal experts. Since Reveal’s investigation, CAAIR [Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery] has become the subject of two other class-action lawsuits and three government investigations. CAAIR is modeled after DARP.
Reveal’s article says workers have told it that Hendren Plastics has employed as many as 20 people from DARP at one time.
Mark Fochtman was sent to DARP by an Arkansas drug court, according to court filings. At Hendren, he worked along a production line at the factory that melted plastic into dock floats and boat slips, according to an affidavit filed along with the lawsuit.
“The environment was very caustic working around melted plastics,” Fochtman said in the affidavit. “Because of the work environment, the turnover rate during my time was high.”
If DARP workers got hurt on the job and couldn’t work, they were often kicked out of the program and sent to prison, according to interviews with former participants, as well as the lawsuit. Others worked through the pain.
“Because of these threats, myself and other residents worked through sickness and injury to avoid being sent to prison,” Fochtman said.
Dylan Willis also worked at Hendren. He said his face, arms and legs are still covered with burn marks from molten plastic that shot out of a machine. DARP managers shrugged off his blisters as merely “cosmetic,” he said.
“They just gave me some Neosporin and told me I’d be all right,” Willis said.
The article notes that the Department of Community Correction revoked
Community Correction Director Sheila Sharp said other programs provide the same services as DARP while paying participants.
Arkansas prisons are no longer supposed to send parolees to the program. Courts, however, continue to send defendants there.
In a previous interview with Reveal, DARP President Raymond Jones said his rehab program keeps the money to pay for services. If participants complete six months, they are eligible for a gift of at least $500.
His program is “an opportunity to help people get their lives back on track, that cannot find an open bed at a rehab or a state and federal funded facility,” he said.
Reveal said Hendren didn’t respond to its requests for comment.