Former clients say Tahlequah work camp offers no counseling for people battling addiction
TAHLEQUAH — A court-sanctioned program where some clients work gutting chickens claims on its taxes to have spent thousands of dollars on counseling programs last year, but former participants say it offers little help for addiction outside of 12-step meetings and forced church attendance.
The Tahlequah-based DARP Foundation claims on its most recent publicly available tax forms to have spent $42,000 on counseling programs from August 2015 to July 2016 and $3,300 for education.
Two class-action lawsuits filed against DARP within the last month, including one filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, claim DARP offers no therapy and forces clients to work as much as 14 hours a day gutting chickens and other manual labor jobs.
Former DARP client Josh Cunningham, 25, said the program provided no counseling, but did require him to attend church and 12-step meetings. Cunningham is an atheist and said he couldn't accept the spiritual components of the program.
Cunningham was sent to DARP earlier this year from Cleveland County Drug Court after he struggled to stay clean and failed a drug test. His probation officer described DARP to him as a "behavior modification program," he said.
At DARP, Cunningham said he was forced to work as much as 60 hours a week on the graveyard shift, making kitchen cabinets in a factory in Arkansas.
"They really just wanted me to clock in and clock out and make them money," Cunningham said. "There was no individual counseling."
Adrienne Day, 33, spent six months at the DARP Foundation's women's facility at Tahlequah in 2013 after a probation violation on a felony drug conviction in Garvin County.
- Related to this story
- Article: Some Oklahoma courts approve work at a poultry plant as drug sentencing alternative
- Article: Oklahoma drug court to review use of work-based diversion program
- Article: Controversial work-camp recovery program has its critics, but supporters say it works
- Article: Oklahoma Vice: ACLU wants to talk to work camp participants after allegations of abuse
- Article: ACLU claims Oklahomans forced to live in squalid conditions at court-sanctioned work camp
- Video: Does working at poultry plants fight addiction?
She faced 15 years in prison if she didn't graduate from DARP.
Day says the only help she and others received for drug addiction was taking turns reading from an old Alcoholics Anonymous book. The women were also bussed to a nearby church to listen to mandatory sermons, she said.
"There were mentally ill people there. There were people who needed medication but weren't getting it," Day said. "These girls were not in an environment with support."
Day was ordered to attend the DARP program after she failed a breathalyzer test.
Although DARP is not licensed by the state to treat drug addiction, court records in Day's case state that she was sentenced to attend the program for "long-term inpatient treatment."
The DARP program was founded by Tahlequah resident Raymond Jones in 2001. In its lawsuit, the ACLU describes Jones as a former methamphetamine manufacturer and sometimes traveling preacher.
Jones declined to answer The Oklahoman's questions about what counseling the DARP program offers or its living conditions.
The DARP program is completely unlicensed by the state of Oklahoma. There are no state requirements on the amount or type of counseling DARP is required to offer because it does not promote itself as a drug-treatment program.
The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services does not pay for drug court clients to attend DARP, but also does not forbid courts in the state from sending people to the program.
"We still tell the courts that they are not treatment programs and do not in any way pay for services that may be delivered by those programs," agency spokesman Jeff Dismukes said.
Clients tell of grueling labor, bedbugs
Day claims the women's dorm at DARP was infested with bedbugs and she and other women were covered in itchy red bites.
Out of necessity, DARP clients made homemade laundry soap that made them all break out in hives, she said.
Day and other clients worked 10 to 14 hours a day working in the DARP poultry processing plant next to the women's dorm near Tahlequah. The longest shift she worked was 15 hours, Day said. Her arms became permanently stained by chicken blood and the vinegar solution used to wash the birds, she claims.
At the plant, Day gutted poultry sold under the brand name Grandma Nellie's free-range chicken.
The women would often cry as they worked, Day said.
"You're bawling every single day. There's always some girl over there just hurting and crying," she said." It was a painful experience."
DARP closed its poultry plant in 2015. The plant was dark and the gate padlocked when The Oklahoman visited recently.
Cunningham said DARP would frequently volunteer him to cover extra shifts at the cabinet factory and keep all of his earnings.
DARP paid Cunningham one pack of cigarettes a week and fed him mostly on donations from a food pantry or expired, free food from supermarkets, he said.
"Every single one of us works hard at a factory five or six days a week," Cunningham said. "There's no way we aren't making them a lot of money."
Mid-America Cabinets, the Gentry, Arkansas-based company where Cunningham worked, did not respond to The Oklahoman's questions about its use of clients from the DARP program. The company manufactures kitchen cabinets used in apartment buildings and other multifamily dwellings across the United States, according to its website.
The DARP men's dorm in Decatur, Arkansas, also was heavily infested with bedbugs, but DARP wouldn't pay a professional exterminator to treat the problem, relying instead on home remedies that didn't work, Cunningham said.
Some ask court to leave program
In October, Cunningham left the DARP program after four and a half months. He and a handful of other DARP clients recently asked Cleveland County Drug Court for permission to leave DARP early after The Oklahoman published a story questioning some aspects of the unlicensed recovery program.
One plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, Christopher Williams, also asked the court to leave DARP in October after a family member shared The Oklahoman article with him.
"Williams believed the article validated his own experience and his serious concerns about the DARP program," the lawsuit claimed.
Two other clients also petitioned the Cleveland County court to leave the program early, but DARP retaliated by pre-emptively discharging them, the lawsuit claims.
Judge Michael Tupper, who presides over Cleveland County Drug Court, declined to comment on DARP clients allowed to leave the program early.
Day said the DARP program did help strengthen her faith in God.
"People came to God because what else do you got?" she said. "I was just so desperate for something."