Views of and near the CAAIR campus along South 700 Road near Jay, Oklahoma.
Photo by Shane Bevel

Drug offenders in Tulsa County will no longer be referred to a Christian rehab facility in Jay while the court system here conducts an evaluation of the program, The Frontier has learned.

The facility, CAAIR (Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery), was the focus of an investigation by Reveal, a national news outlet based in California. The investigation was released last week and revealed that at CAAIR, defendants worked pay-free for a poultry company that profited off the free labor. Some defendants who were injured on the job even had their worker’s compensation payments withheld and pocketed by CAAIR.

Tulsa County sends about 20 drug court participants each year to CAAIR, said Heather Hope-Hernandez, chief of external affairs for the Community Service Council. The Community Service Council works with Tulsa County’s alternative court system, including veterans court, DUI court and drug court. There are currently 11 Tulsa County Drug Court participants at CAAIR, Hope-Hernandez said, a figure that represents about two percent of the county’s total program participation.

Hope-Hernandez said on Wednesday that the Tulsa County court system had suspended the use of CAAIR as a referral during an evaluation period. She said no timeline currently exists for how long the evaluation would take.

They thought they were going to rehab. They ended up in chicken plants

In the series of stories by Reveal, numerous stories were told of defendants who were sent to CAAIR and forced to work long, grueling hours at Simmons Foods, Inc., a billion-dollar company that “slaughter(s) and process(es) chickens for some of America’s largest retailers and restaurants, including Walmart, KFC and Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen. They also make pet food for PetSmart and Rachael Ray’s Nutrish brand.

The Tulsa County Court House. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

The program bills itself as a rehab facility that doesn’t charge its participants. Instead they work and CAAIR profits, the Reveal series shows.

Programs like CAAIR are part of a national push to keep low-level drug offenders from prisons. Rather than incarceration, alternative sentencing programs are designed to rehabilitate offenders, resulting in lower recidivism and a healthier population.

But the defendants quoted in the CAAIR story told a different story, one where desperate men willing to do almost anything to avoid prison were used as free labor while CAAIR and Simmons Food profited wildly.

The allegations made in the Reveal stories came as a surprise to the Community Service Council, Hope-Hernandez said. In the years of referring Tulsa County defendants to CAAIR, she said the CSC had never heard a complaint.

Hope-Hernandez said that after being interviewed by Reveal, she was told by Presiding Tulsa County District Judge Rebecca Nightingale that two defendants had just finished nine-month stays at CAAIR but had requested to stay longer.

“Judge Nightingale said she had just gotten a call from a participant (at CAAIR) who said ‘Hey, when I come back to Tulsa bad things happen, can I just stay?’

“We’ve had positive outcomes from the people we’ve referred there.”

Class-action suit filed against court-referred work program following national investigation

About 200 men from various parts of Oklahoma and surrounding states stay at CAAIR, according to the Reveal article, which said many are addicted to drugs. However CAAIR is not certified by Oklahoma as a treatment facility, and Hope-Hernandez said participants in Tulsa County’s drug court program doesn’t attend CAAIR for treatment.

“Anyone with a serious mental health or serious substance abuse challenge would be sent to a certified treatment facility,” she said. “(CAAIR) would be for people who don’t rise to that level but need some discipline in their lives.”

She said the drug court program here treats CAAIR as the “compliance” portion of drug court. Defendants who are referred to drug court have certain requirements, such as maintaining housing, keeping a job and not re-offending. For many, she said, CAAIR represents a simple way to maintain compliance.

“One anecdotal story is we had a veteran who could not maintain housing, he was couch-surfing, kind of bouncing around, so we sent him to CAAIR so he would have a roof over his head,” she said. “The people who go through CAAIR generally promote faster through the system.”

The last week has not been kind to the rehab facility. Aside from the Reveal investigation, a Tulsa attorney has filed a class-action lawsuit against CAAIR and Simmons Food, Inc., accusing them of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, Oklahoma Protection of Labor Act, Oklahoma Minimum Wage Act and Oklahoma’s Human Trafficking statutes.

Tulsa law firm Smolen Smolen & Roytman filed the federal suit on behalf of Arthur Copeland, Brannon Spurgin, Brad McGahey and men who were or are currently assigned to the program.

Messages left on Wednesday for CAAIR director were not returned.