Drug rehabilitation program or indentured servitude?

Addictions are frighteningly easy to acquire and tremendously difficult to get rid of. While no single treatment method works for everyone, the punitive approaches of harsh penalties such as prison time for possession and use of drugs for what essentially has become an illness seems misguided. But in the US, the heavy hand of the private profit-seeking pharmaceutical sector that benefits from creating drug addicts and the private prison system that benefits from incarcerating large numbers of people prevent more enlightened and humane methods from being widely used.

There are alternative treatments and one that seems to be promising is the so-called ‘work therapy’ that puts people in jobs while also providing them with therapy, the idea that being in productive employment during treatment will enable recovering addicts to more easily transition to ordinary life after the treatment ends.

That at least is the theory.

But Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting finds that some of these programs are exploiting addicts by forcing them to work for private companies such as Walmart, Amazon, and Shell for long hours, up to 80 hours per week, and without any days off. The companies give the workers’ entire salaries to the non-profit treatment center to supposedly cover the cost of the therapy. But little therapy is provided and often the workers are placed in dangerous jobs for which they have no training or protective equipment, resulting in injuries.

A nationally renowned drug rehab program in Texas and Louisiana has sent patients struggling with addiction to work for free for some of the biggest companies in America, likely in violation of federal labor law.

The Cenikor Foundation has dispatched tens of thousands of patients to work without pay at more than 300 for-profit companies over the years. In the name of rehabilitation, patients have moved boxes in a sweltering warehouse for Walmart, built an oil platform for Shell and worked at an Exxon refinery along the Mississippi River.

“It’s like the closest thing to slavery,” said Logan Tullier, a former Cenikor participant who worked 10 hours per day at oil refineries, laying steel rebar in 115-degree heat. “We were making them all the money.”

An ongoing Reveal investigation has exposed how many drug rehabs across America have become little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Patients have slaughtered chickens on speeding assembly lines in Oklahoma and cared for residents at assisted living facilities in North Carolina.

Among these programs, Cenikor stands out. It has a long history of accolades from sitting lawmakers and judges and even former President Ronald Reagan. Last year, the Texas-based nonprofit earned more than $7 million from work contracts alone, making it one of the largest and most lucrative work-based rehabs in the country.

Bill Bailey, who as Cenikor’s chief executive officer earned more than $400,000 in 2017, repeatedly declined requests for comment.

Like many participants, Ethan Ewers was ordered to complete Cenikor by a Texas judge after failing a drug test while on probation. Once he arrived, he said he worked 43 days straight in a sweltering warehouse unloading cargo containers for Walmart. One day in 2016, when he was bone tired and on the brink of relapsing, he finally snapped.

“I said, ‘You need to give me a day off because I can’t do this anymore,’ ” Ewers told Cenikor brass. “It was absolutely ridiculous.”

Multiple former staff members told Reveal that counselors routinely falsified counseling records to make it appear as though patients received more counseling than they did. During busy work seasons, some received no counseling at all.

The graduation rate from the 18-month program is less than 8% and those who fail to graduate do not get any of the promised benefits such as a job, a car, and the tools to rebuild their lives. They are effectively back on the streets with nothing at all to show for their labor.

Reveal worked in collaboration with Al Jazeera to produce a video report on the practice

It is telling that Cenikor refused to be interviewed, would not answer their calls, or even open the doors of their offices. That is not the behavior of a company that is proud of what they do.


  1. says

    This is so sad. It also creates a somewhat different perspective for my own experiences—I have perceived myself as abused and unlucky simply for being forced to spend a few weeks working 6-hour days.

    Being forced to work for free has always made me immensely bitter, it made me hate whoever was profiting from my work. What pissed me most were the lies and deception of all those people who exploited me yet told me stories about how the work was for my own benefit, because I was learning valuable work skills.

    The worst offender was my school. When I was between 16 and 18 years old, they forced me to spend a week every summer working at school—washing floors, painting walls, gardening, arranging books in library shelves. If my school had been honest and said “the state doesn’t give us enough money and we cannot afford to hire somebody who could paint the walls, but we really wish to make the school building look nicer,” I wouldn’t have objected much. But all the teachers insisted on bullshitting about how this work experience was for my own benefit and how I was learning valuable skills by washing floors for free. My solution to the problem was to fake working. I would sit for hours doing nothing and imitating action. My teachers may have forced me to arrive at the school building on some specific day, but I wasn’t going to let them profit from exploiting me.

    At least things were better at the university, there nobody even tried to make me accept any internships.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Why the shocked reaction? You’re talking about (and living in) a country that hasn’t abolished slavery. It’s right there, written into the hallowed Constitution, it’s explicitly legal to enslave someone if they’ve been “duly convicted”. I simply don’t understand all this pearl-clutching that people do about this -- the US was and is a slave-using nation. Get used to it, or change it. (You won’t see the civilised world holding its breath…)

  3. Holms says

    A good post in genderal, but I found your opening comment a tad strange: “Addictions are frighteningly easy to acquire”. I have found it extremely easy to turn down offers of hard drugs.

    Why the shocked reaction? …

    sonof, do you have a cookie cutter for these responses? Almost every time Mano posts about something awful, your comment is reliably “omg stop being surprised”.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Holms @#3,

    I too have never succumbed to the allure of drugs in any form, including alcohol and cigarettes, but I put that down to sheer luck, that I was fortunate to have never been in a situation where it may have seemed attractive to try it out. But I know people who have become addicted and people who treat addicts and it seems like it is a very slippery slope and for many people it can depend on whether one takes that first step or not.

  5. Ravi Venkataraman says

    It is interesting that it is Al Jazeera that is doing this type of investigative work. The poor cash rich main stream media do not seem to have any funds left over for real investigative journalism after devoting so much energy and resources to try to impeach Trump while demonizing Russia, China, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and trying so hard to remain silent about US military activities in Africa and many other parts of the world. The Western world has a strange concept of a free press, which they take to be the freedom to report uncritically anything that their government says. So called third worlkd countries like India have had a much freer press for the last 50 years or so.

  6. says

    The poor cash rich main stream media do not seem to have any funds left over for real investigative journalism after devoting so much energy and resources to try to impeach Trump…


    the freedom to report uncritically anything that their government says.

    Self-contradiction much?

  7. says

    There are also supplementary programs that help quicken the rehabilitation process. These include local support groups, extended care centers, recovery and sober houses, residential treatments, out patients and many others. There are also rehabilitation centers that focus on gender and age specific programs.

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