Slave labor. It’s the real thing.
Just months after they broke the story that Tulsa area drug courts were sending inmates to work long days and nights (for free) in Arkansas and Missouri chicken slaughterhouses and calling it “rehab,” Reveal News has revealed the revelation that a Coca-Cola bottler in Ada is basically doing the same thing with a similar program, minus the salmonella poisoning.
This time, the program in question is called Southern Oklahoma Addiction Recovery – also known as SOAR. It was created by an ingenious judge who found a great unethical way to rig a system for his own benefit.
Retired Oklahoma Judge Thomas Landrith is hailed as a hero of criminal justice reform.
He started the first rural drug court in the nation and has reaped awards for sending defendants to treatment rather than prison. Most judges in the state model their drug courts after his.
But Landrith also is involved in a more sinister byproduct of criminal justice reform.
Nearly a decade ago, Landrith started his own rehab work camp where defendants must work full time for free at a local Coca-Cola bottling plant and other companies, under threat of prison if they don’t comply. They are required to say they’re unemployed and turn over their food stamps to the program, which state regulators say is fraud. And on their days off, some worked for free mowing Landrith’s lawn and doing yard work around his property.
Question. How does one start a rehab work camp? I’d love to hire some recovering addicts to ghostwrite these blog postings for me all day for free. The ex-Tate Publishing employees I’ve been using from the Philippines are now demanding $10 an hour!
Coca-Cola’s guidelines for its independent bottling plants prohibit forced labor. In response to Reveal’s reporting, the Ada Coca-Cola Bottling Co. said it would suspend its use of SOAR, saying in a statement that it takes “the concerns that have been raised seriously.”
“We have participated in the SOAR program because of the good we have seen it can do for people in our community and are hopeful we can work with SOAR to revise the terms of the program so that we can resume participation in the future,” the statement said.
I’ve never taken a journalism class in my life, but did they really need to verify that Coca-Cola prohibits forced labor at bottling plants? We’re in the 21st century. They’re not hunting for diamonds. That should be implied.
Landrith started SOAR in 2008 as his drug court was grappling with a shortage of affordable treatment programs. The Pontotoc County jail was so overcrowded that when Landrith meted out punishment for dirty drug tests, some defendants ended up sleeping outside. His rehab program would cost defendants and taxpayers nothing. All those in the program had to do was work.
“Labor conquers all,” Landrith said. “Some of those people have never worked a day in their life.”
Today, SOAR houses about 55 men and women who work at a Coca-Cola bottling plant, a car wash owned by a board member, a roofing company, local motels and a Leachco factory that makes pregnancy pillows sold at Babies R Us, Nordstrom and Bed Bath & Beyond.
While women in the program get to keep some of their pay, men get nothing. The companies pay SOAR for all the labor and don’t have to pay for workers’ taxes or workers’ compensation insurance, according to the rehab program.
Will someone show this to Oklahoma lawmakers at the capitol? Knowing that men make less than women at slave labor camps may finally motivate them to pass equal pay laws.
Landrith told Reveal that he expects SOAR to get sued for its work practices, as two other Oklahoma rehabs have recently. If that happens, he said, most defendants going to work-based programs will probably end up going to prison.
“We started the SOAR program because there was no place to send anybody. It’s still that way,” he said. “I don’t know what everybody wants the endgame to be.”
Other programs that resemble SOAR pay their participants for their labor. And most don’t have their participants perform free yard work for a judge.
I have an idea for the endgame! How about we stop sending people to jail (or slave labor camps) for using or even selling drugs? While we’re at, maybe we should decriminalize all victimless crimes. What an insane idea! That will help combat prison overcrowding, and also free up law enforcement to go after real criminals. I know that’s a logical response, and it doesn’t benefit greedy old judges and others who are looking to profit off slave labor, but it’s something to consider.