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Federal lawsuit accuses Oklahoma drug recovery program of labor law, human trafficking violations

Oct 11, 2017 / News Item / NewsOK — Randy Ellis

A northeastern Oklahoma drug and alcohol rehabilitation program and an Arkansas-based chicken processing corporation have been accused of human trafficking and labor law violations in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Tulsa.

"Under the guise of providing alcohol and drug counseling and rehabilitation services," Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR) operated a "work camp program" in Delaware County in which court-referred participants were "required to provide free labor for Simmons Foods under constant threat of incarceration," the lawsuit alleges.

Participants received no wages and their only compensation was "meals consisting primarily of bologna sandwiches, as well as ... communal bunk-bed housing," the lawsuit alleges, adding that CAAIR and Simmons benefited financially from the "slave labor."

The lawsuit was filed by three former program participants who are seeking to make the litigation a class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 1,000 individuals who participated in the program. The former workers, Arthur Copeland, Brandon Spurgin and Brad McGahey, are represented by the Tulsa law firm Smolen, Smolen & Roytman.

It was falsely represented to participants that they would receive drug and alcohol counseling rehabilitation, the lawsuit claims.

CAAIR is not certified as a drug treatment program through the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

A spokesman for Simmons Foods said the company plans to fight the lawsuit.

"We can't comment on pending litigation, but I can tell you that we definitely plan to use the resources at our disposal to vigorously defend ourselves through the legal process," said spokesman Donny Epps.

Janet Wilkerson, co-founder of CAAIR, did not return a voicemail seeking comment.

She previously told The Oklahoman that part of the structure of the program was to teach participants the responsibility of getting up and going to work.

"It's not for everyone," she said in an Oct. 1 investigative article in The Oklahoman. "We have no bars, no gates, no guards. They are here by choice."

The three former workers who filed the lawsuit all said they were injured while working at the Simmons poultry processing plant.

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McGahey reporting a suffering "severe crush injury" to one of his hands when it got stuck in a conveyor belt while he was attempting to help an injured co-worker.

The lawsuit says a doctor gave McGahey a splint and ordered him not to work, but CAAIR administrators called him lazy, accused him of hurting himself on purpose, and told him, "You can either work or you go to prison."

Suffering and in constant pain, McGahey is now addicted to pain medication, the lawsuit says.

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