Reveal-ing abuses at rehab work camps

JOURNALISM HAS A COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP with Facebook, which many view as a serious threat to the Fourth Estate. But for Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter, reporters for the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, a trail of Facebook friends led to a groundbreaking, months-long investigation into abuses at rehab work camps.

Harris and Walter were on a new beat—state courts—and searching for stories. They looked into drug courts, which handle cases involving substance abuse offenders and, according to Walter, receive scant critical coverage. Such courts are supposed to provide treatment-focused alternatives to incarceration. In Oklahoma, judges send nonviolent offenders to so-called “rehab work camps” to treat their addictions, teach them to lead more productive lives, and ease overcrowding in prisons and jails.

ICYMI: The Dallas Morning News recreates a fatal standoff with special investigation

In some cases, the Reveal reporters discovered a different reality—one they’ve continued to cover since their first story published in October. Through Facebook sleuthing—along with records mining and interviews with former work camp employees, judges, and court officials—Harris and Walter exposed some camps to be what one participant described to them as modern-day “slave camps.”

Once they had a lead, Harris and Walter turned to reviews of the programs on Facebook and Google. Often, the first few comments were glowing, according to Harris. But as the reporters kept scrolling, the comments took a negative turn.

In their first story, Harris and Walter zoomed in on an Oklahoma program called Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR), which forced participants to work at chicken plants. The hours were long, and the conditions at the plants were often dangerous. The plants had zero substance abuse treatment, and some employees pocketed their workers’ earnings. At its core, CAAIR—and other programs like it—cultivated a new form of indentured servitude. Harris and Walter stumbled upon CAAIR as they searched different keyword combinations related to treatment programs in the Oklahoma state court database. “We basically learned the language these programs use to describe themselves,” Walter says.

Once they had a lead, Harris and Walter turned to reviews of the programs on Facebook and Google. Often, the first few comments were glowing, according to Harris. But as the reporters kept scrolling, the comments took a negative turn. “You would start seeing things that describe with more specificity what the program was like,” says Harris.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

The two reporters messaged users who had left reviews, or ones who had previously checked in at CAAIR on Facebook. “Once we talked with a few people,” says Walter, “it opened up the door to so many people”—including program participants and supervisors at the chicken plant. One new Facebook friend led them to others; Harris and Walter combed through friend lists for hours on end, building a network of sources who eventually helped blow the story open. “At some point, all of my Facebook friends were guys who went to the CAAIR program,” Walter jokes.

Harris and Walter located a breach-of-contract suit against CAAIR’s founders that laid out critical information, including CAAIR’s ties to chicken plants. After hearing anecdotes about participants getting hurt at the plants, they looked into workers’ compensation claims connected to CAAIR, and spoke with people named in those documents to verify their injuries and learn more about conditions at the camps. The compensation claims exposed another surprise: CAAIR was filing workers’ comp claims on behalf of the participants, then keeping the settlements.

“There was so much information in writing,” says Harris. “It was just about finding the documents.”

It took Harris and Walter nine months to report and write the first story about rehab work camps. Since then, they have amassed a list of other questionable work rehab programs across the country. Late last month, they published a story about a North Carolina rehab program, Recovery Connections Community, that funnels participants into nursing homes instead of poultry plants. Rehab participants were poorly trained, and often worked 100-plus hours each week. Some stole prescription drugs from the nursing facilities; a few were accused of sexually assaulting patients. Since that story’s publication, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has ordered a crackdown on programs like Recovery Connections, and the state attorney general has launched a criminal investigation into the program. The state’s Department of Health and Human Services ordered Recovery Connections to stop sending participants to nursing homes. A similar wave of impact in Oklahoma followed the first Reveal story.

The pair hopes to partner with local newsrooms to dig further into such rehab work programs. It’s easy to think of them, Walter says, as “little microcosms of hell and abuse. But it’s part of a larger pattern of a lack of affordable treatment options in the US.”

ICYMI: The Oregonian‘s shocking teacher investigation

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.