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.