ACLU claims Oklahomans forced to live in squalid conditions at court-sanctioned work camp
Muskogee — Participants in a court-sanctioned work camp lived in squalid, bedbug-ridden barracks and were forced to work as many as 60 hours a week in a program that masqueraded as drug treatment, The ACLU of Oklahoma claims in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Muskogee on behalf of seven former participants in the DARP Foundation program. DARP offers some defendants in Oklahoma courts a chance to avoid prison in exchange for working a variety of manual labor jobs.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of all former DARP clients. The ACLU estimates as many as 2,000 people may have attended the program over the past 10 years.
DARP has campuses in Tahlequah and Decatur, Arkansas.
Several companies accused of using DARP participants as a source of free labor are also named as defendants in the lawsuit, including the Arkansas-based poultry company Simmons Foods Inc.
Simmons Foods told The Oklahoman in September that it had ended a contract with DARP to provide workers in 2009. "Simmons has no relationship whatsoever with DARP," the company said Wednesday.
One plaintiff, Kermit Troxel, of Wagoner County claims in the lawsuit that DARP fed him a diet of bologna sandwiches, expired Little Debbie snack cakes and spoiled chicken from the work camp's poultry processing plant. He said he was forced to work at an unpaid welding job at R&R Engineering, where he was injured when a piece of steel struck him in the eye.
Troxel never sought medical treatment for the injury because he feared getting kicked out of the program and being sent to prison, the lawsuit states.
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Troxel also claims DARP founder Raymond Jones made him wash his two Corvettes — registered as "DARP-1" and "DARP-2" — to help fulfill part of his court-ordered community service.
ACLU Legal Director Brady Henderson said the state's underfunded, overworked criminal justice system and a lack of affordable or state-funded drug treatment problems have made Oklahoma particularly vulnerable to such programs.
"Private companies were allowed to hijack our criminal justice system and use it for free labor," Henderson said. "This is one of the most significant civil rights violations in recent Oklahoma history."
The Oklahoman first reported in October that some Oklahoma courts were sending drug-addicted defendants to work gutting chickens for the Arkansas-based Simmons Foods Inc. through the DARP program and another program based in Delaware County called CAAIR Inc. The faith-based programs are completely unregulated by the state of Oklahoma.
Both CAAIR and DARP now face multiple lawsuits accusing their programs of using the court system to funnel workers into dangerous, unpaid manual labor jobs.
Clients in the CAAIR and DARP programs work for no pay in a variety of jobs in exchange for room and board and a chance to avoid prison.
DARP provided no counseling, aside from 12-step meetings three times a week and watching Christian movies, the ACLU lawsuit claims.
Plaintiff Tim Hyers of Stephens County said he underwent severe drug withdrawals while at DARP and claims he received no medical care. He worked as a cook at DARP's processing plant in Tahlequah.
"Hyers' job consisted primarily of picking up dead chickens and putting them in maggot-filled barrels on a daily basis," the lawsuit states.
Another plaintiff — Codie Shreve of Muskogee County — said he was sent to DARP after a probation violation of testing positive for marijuana.
He said he lived at the DARP program in Decatur for 22 months and was forced to work 12 hours a day gutting chickens with his hands at Simmons Foods. Shreve claims his hands were permanently injured and he got a staph infection.
He alleges that Jones threatened to have him kicked out of the program and sent to prison when he reported the injuries.
DARP declined to comment when contacted by The Oklahoman about the lawsuit.
Other defendants include Arkansas-based Hendren Plastics Inc., which makes boat dock floats; Broken Arrow-based manufacturing company R&R Engineering Co. Inc.; and Locust Grove-based steel fabricator Western Alliance Inc.
Hendren Plastics is owned by Jim Hendren, an Arkansas state senator.
Hendren told The Associated Press this week that Hendren Plastics had ended its contract with DARP after allegations of abuse.
"I just stopped it this week when I saw some of the allegations, and it's one of those issues where a company has to make business decisions," Hendren said. "And the company is going to get put through the wringer for trying to help these kids — you just can't afford to continue to do it. So I feel bad for some of the kids that I think we had an opportunity to help, but I think you'll see a lot of companies step out of the program."
Attempts to contact the owners for R&R Engineering and Western Alliance Inc. were unsuccessful Wednesday.