When Prison is Better than Work: The Story of CAAIR

Almost a smile

When I told y’all about exoskeletons keeping the elderly working past when they should I figured that’d be the most horrific thing I’d talk about this month. It’s pretty hard to outdo making use of genuinely useful and needed technological advancements in such exploitative ways but I think I’ve found a story that does just that and then some.

Not that this is a suffering contest, both of these issues matter and are worth our attention and criticism. But I think it’s safe to say that this story may hit a little harder, affect more folks generally speaking and may be even less known than the exoskeletons.

Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery or CAAIR is about as bad as it sounds. It’s a “rehab” program for “addicts” or more concretely criminals who don’t want to go to prison. Most people would do just about anything than go to prison (myself included) so it’s a  Good thing to give alternatives to the prison system! Well, that would be the case normally…

But in this case, the alternative may be just as bad, if not worse:

People called it “the Chicken Farm,” a rural retreat where defendants stayed for a year, got addiction treatment and learned to live more productive lives. Most were sent there by courts from across Oklahoma and neighboring states, part of the nationwide push to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison.

A few weeks later, McGahey stood in front of a speeding conveyor belt inside a frigid poultry plant, pulling guts and stray feathers from slaughtered chickens destined for major fast food restaurants and grocery stores.

There wasn’t much substance abuse treatment at CAAIR. It was mostly factory work for one of America’s top poultry companies. If McGahey got hurt or worked too slowly, his bosses threatened him with prison.

And he worked for free. CAAIR pocketed the pay.

“It was a slave camp,” McGahey said. “I can’t believe the court sent me there.”

Of course, I can believe it. If you know anything about the way prisons work (and I’m not blaming McGahey here) then you probably know about the 13th amendment and how prisons undermine this important part of the constitution. It says (in brief) that slavery is abolished except as a punishment for being convicted of a crime. This opened the door to all kinds of exploitative work “opportunities” happening in prisons with prisoners being paid next to nothing.

You can also see this in shows like Orange is the New Black where the characters are constantly working for pitiful wages in sometimes dangerous jobs with minimum supervision. They do this so they can buy things like deodorant or ramen, etc. So the fact that judges would send people to a place like this and then have their “softer” option as CAAIR doesn’t surprise me one iota.

The situation at this chicken farm doesn’t sound much different. The sad thing is that although McGahey is correct about the chicken farm being a slave camp he wouldn’t have been much better off at prison. Though, I don’t know that for a fact. And as it turns out, he got released from prison when he failed the program later after a couple of months…due to overcrowding.

Perhaps the saddest part is that these factories have become, “…the bedrock of criminal justice reform, aiming to transform lives and ease overcrowded prisons.” But instead they’ve transformed an already exploited population into an arguably more exploited population:

[They are] little more than lucrative work camps for private industry, an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

The programs promise freedom from addiction. Instead, they’ve turned thousands of men and women into indentured servants.

Perhaps no rehab better exemplifies this allegiance to big business than CAAIR. It was started in 2007 by chicken company executives struggling to find workers. By forming a Christian rehab, they could supply plants with a cheap and captive labor force while helping men overcome their addictions.

The allure of a “captive work force” shouldn’t be new to any of my anti-capitalist readers. But just in case, capitalists have a long history of wanting to make use of the easiest and most vulnerable working population. Why? Easier wages. It’s why immigrants are so often hired in terrible work environments and industries, because capitalists know they can pay them less and get away with more and especially if those immigrants are undocumented. Then you can just threaten them with deportation or ICE and that gets people to work on the cheap very easily.

Besides this bosses also tend to love it, especially historically, when workers will decide to scab (or work in place of striking workers) and then work for less. Speculation on my part but I’m betting that’s often how bosses can get scabs to begin with, promise them a solid wage to replace people who are striking against workplace injustices and then eventually get their wages up to normal.

Lastly, we can go even further back to look at the history of feudalism and pre-industrial revolution and how often landlords and capitalists loved using peasants who were dispossessed of their lands, often by the feudal lords themselves. No matter what part of history you’re looking at there’s a long line of people in power taking advantage of the vulnerable, especially in work.

By the way, just so you know, try to steer clear of these brands:

They slaughter and process chickens for some of America’s largest retailers and restaurants, including Walmart, KFC and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. They also make pet food for PetSmart and Rachael Ray’s Nutrish brand.

Just giving y’all some places to avoid, think of it makings your choice paralysis minimize by taking out the extremely shitty brands and making way for the only moderately shitty ones!

There’s discussion in this article about how dangerous chicken farms can be, but y’all could’ve figured that out. A place like that where the countless slaughter of animals happen (I’m not vegan, but when they’re right, they’re right) keeping a place like that safe and sanitary is a huge job pretty much no one is well-equipped to deal with.

Here’s another quote about captive workers:

“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.”

Desperation breeds injustice is a great slogan I just thought of but has probably been said by someone better than me before and in a more succinct way. In any case, it’s true. I’ve been in desperate situations myself and they’ve often culminated in great harm befalling either myself or others, sometimes with myself as the person harmed and sometimes I’m the person harming.

As noted anarcha-feminist Voltairine de Cleyre said, “The hells of capitalism create the desperate; the desperate act-desperately!” And in desperation these workers will take just about any job they can get their hands on instead of going to prison. There’s a supposed dignity in work that cannot be said about prison. Even if you say things like “I did my time” people won’t exactly be handing you medals and saying congrats. But saying you worked your butt off in horrible conditions?

Well that’s a recipe to get a polite smile, more than you’ll likely get from saying you did time. It’s also worth noting that the shame I noted last week that people feel when they aren’t working (even when they’re “retired”) coalesces “nicely” with the shame people feel for going to prison. If we can do something our culture looks kindly on instead of one that is heavily punished (felons still have to fight for their right to vote) then it seems like a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean CAAIR is a good choice:

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Noah Zatz, a professor specializing in labor law at UCLA, said when presented with Reveal’s findings. “That’s a very strong 13th Amendment violation case.”

Instead of paychecks, the men get bunk beds, meals and Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. If there’s time between work shifts, they can meet with a counselor or attend classes on anger management and parenting. Weekly Bible study is mandatory. For the first four months, so is church. Most days revolve around the work.

Now, to be the most generous I can be, this program has helped some addicts. There’s a few people in the article who either speak up or are mentioned as being genuinely helped by the program and gotten away from their addictions. But even in those cases the way forward shouldn’t involve dangerous, no-pay and exploitative work to get clean. There should be a far better treatment path for addicts who committed crime in the name of their addiction.

That doesn’t mean I’m not happy for those that felt helped by the program and got themselves into a better state of mind and living. Just that I think there can be better ways forward for those  people. Having support programs without the work component is a good start.

There’s also some disgusting defenses that I don’t think this article does enough to tear apart, so I’m gonna do it instead. I’m not writing journalism, it’s all about those polemics!

“Money is an obstacle for so many of these men,” said Janet Wilkerson, CAAIR’s founder and CEO. “We’re not going to charge them to come here, but they’re going to have to work. That’s a part of recovery, getting up like you and I do every day and going to a job.”

Part of recovery, for many people, is having a support system and work doesn’t always facilitate that for non-addicts, let alone for people struggling with drugs and alcohol. Work often gives us the opposite of support systems in the form of abusive bosses, temporary co-workers who are gone as soon as we get to know them or live long enough to become the villain (the boss).

And just because “you and I” do something every day doesn’t mean it should be considered part of a healthy routine. Plenty of people hate what they do every day or at the very least wish it was something different. Something that inspires them, pays them more, treats them better, gives them more hope in the world or whatever else. Yes, we all get up to our jobs and that’s bad.

Seeing “recovery” as a form of assimilation is exactly what’s wrong with huge corporations dictating what “recovery” means to begin with. Sure, it’s possible this program may (and has) helped some people with their addiction. But it’s even more likely it’s left many people injured, isolated, pressured and falling off the wagon once they leave. I doubt CAAIR gives those statistics.

But Donny Epp, a spokesman for Simmons Foods, said the company does not depend on CAAIR to fill a labor shortage.

“It’s about building relationships with our community and supporting the opportunity to help people become productive citizens,” he said.

Building relationships isn’t the same as employing people! I can’t believe this needs to be explained to someone who claims to be smart enough to manage corporations. On the other hand I suppose it’s entirely believable. Employment is seen as a relationship starter with communities instead of what it really is: A toxic and abusive relationship that’s often a non-starter.

Employing people doesn’t make people necessarily productive either. Many folks will tell you that they pull out every trick in the (anti-work) book to make sure they can slack off. Some of them take micro naps, others gossip, some people re-fold the same pile of clothes for a few minutes.

Whatever the case may be, being productive is overrated. Productivity isn’t all there is to life, it’s just enough to be and not have to deal with the constant pressures of modernity. That doesn’t mean we should go back to a bygone era but it does mean there are some serious issues when society starts to conflate the words “recovery” and “productivity” in the workplace.

Let’s get a little bit into how CAAIR started, per the article:

[Janet Wilkerson’s] brother had died from alcoholism, and her husband’s drinking had nearly destroyed their marriage. She had long wanted to help others like them. The economics also made sense. The chicken plants needed workers, and Jones’ program was bringing in revenue of more than $2 million a year.

This was after a meth dealer came to Wilkerson offering her the use of his men as they’d be cheap and easily available. But I don’t need to elaborate for you to guess that some of these “sensible” premises and economics contributed to brutality towards workers both in the short-run and especially in the long-run. And not only did that but it deepened the pockets of the higher ups:

By 2010, hundreds of men poured into CAAIR from courts across Oklahoma. So did the money, allowing the Wilkersons – Janet as CEO and her husband, Don, as vice president of operations – to draw combined salaries of $168,000 a year, nearly four times the median household income in their area.

How bad were these places? The article details McGahey’s experiences which, while I won’t fully detail here, I’ll leave up to your imagination. Read the article if you want the full picture, but just imagine someone who is familiar with dead animals nearly vomiting after first stepping into one of the chicken plants. And then to have nearly lost the use of his arm only three months later.

CAAIR’s response?

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.”

He already had made up his mind.

“I’ll take prison over this place,” he said. “Anywhere is better than here.”

McGahey’s story doesn’t get any happier from there, but read the article for yourself if you want all of the details. It’s a sad story about a building pill addiction due to pain, CAAIR being financially irresponsible (to say the least) and another example of how our perceptions around work in this country are fundamentally damaged and need to be re-examined.

Abolishing capitalism means abolishing CAAIR, it means abolishing work.


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