Muskogee recovery program places participants in jobs gutting chickens
MULDROW — OK Foods, owned by the Mexican transnational corporation Bachoco, is using workers bussed in from a Muskogee drug recovery program at its Muldrow poultry plant.
A worker told The Oklahoman he was required to turn his whole paycheck over to the recovery program to stay out of jail.
Arkansas-based OK Foods' parent company Bachoco is one of the largest integrated poultry producers in the world. The company's chicken products are sold at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores across North America.
Ray's House is a faith-based program based out of a cluster of trailers and a few metal buildings just off a state highway in Muskogee. It is not licensed by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
John Jamel Thompson, 25, who graduated from Ray's House in October, said Ray's House sent him to work full time at OK Foods' poultry processing plant, an hour's drive away in Muldrow.
Thompson said Ray's House forced him and several other program participants to quit their fast food and other various unskilled jobs in order to be bussed to the poultry plant — where they could earn higher wages.
Thompson said he made $600 a week working at the poultry plant, first on a production line and then as a forklift operator. Thompson said he was required to hand over all of his paycheck to Ray's House in order to stay in the program and out of jail.
In a statement, OK Foods said it does not have any contract with Ray's House to provide workers at the Muldrow plant.
“We have not had any contract for services agreement with Ray's House, or any other similar rehabilitation group," OK Foods said. "Individual employees earn an equitable wage based on their job skills and are free to direct their earnings to any individual or entity they wish."
Thompson said the men's dormitory at Ray's House was infested with bedbugs and Ray's House sent him to work with two bologna sandwiches every day and nothing else.
Ray's House founder Ray Welch, a recovering drug addict with multiple felony convictions, created the Ray's House program in 2009.
"This is a faith-based operation," Welch said. "If you don't get the good Lord in your life, you will be back doing the same old thing."
The program requires participants to work and attend services at Choices Church, which is also on the Ray's House campus.
Many Ray's House participants are sent to the program through the state court system after probation violations or as a condition for receiving suspended sentences.
"He knows you are court ordered there and he throws it in your face all the time," Thompson said. "That man is hiding behind God and using people to get their paycheck."
Thompson said he sometimes put in 12-hour days at the OK Foods plant, but never saw any of his wages.
After graduating from Ray's House, Thompson said he tried to keep working at the OK Foods plant, but the job was just too far of a drive and he had to quit.
Welch says the bulk of Ray's House clients, about 30 people, now work at OK Foods. Requiring participation strengthens their work ethic and helps bring stability to their lives, he said.
"OK Foods has been a blessing to them," Welch said.
One recent graduate from the Ray's House program has even decided to stay at the program so he can continue to keep getting a ride to work each day to the OK Foods plant, he said.
"We look for that to be the same way with a few other clients and we will continue to get them back and forth to work. That way they can continue to save money," Welch said.
Ray's House participant Leslie Watson, 58, works cleaning and gutting chickens for OK Foods at the Muldrow plant and said she loves the job. Wearing her OK Foods shirt and smoking a cigarette in front of the women's dorm at Ray's House, Watson said OK Foods treats her well. She works about 35 to 38 hours a week, she said.
"I made a choice to be here to try and help myself," Watson said, "I prefer to work."
Similar work camp programs that send court-ordered clients to work gutting chickens for the company Simmons Foods in Arkansas are now facing multiple class-action lawsuits over the practice.
The lawsuits accuse those recovery programs and Simmons Foods of using the court system to funnel workers into dangerous, unpaid manual labor jobs. The programs named in the lawsuits are Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery in Jay and the DARP Foundation in Tahlequah.