America Has Gulags In Its Own Backyard

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Shoshana Walter. Photo credit: Center for Investigative Reporting

Plucking chickens for for-profit companies, caring for elderly patients without any training and other forms of hard, uncompensated labor are sanctioned in the United States as court-mandated rehabilitation for drug-related charges. As the deficit of rehab care in the U.S. grew in the midst of the far-reaching opioids crisis over recent years, what are essentially work camps—where detainees work for no money or face prison time, despite often not even being convicted of a crime—started to pop up all over the country.

In a hard-hitting series for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, investigative journalist Shoshana Walter details the shocking discoveries she and her former Reveal colleague Amy Julia Harris, now at the New York Times, made as they investigated long-term residential treatment programs .

“Most people who need addiction treatment can’t get it,” Walter tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.” “So that just led me to question: If there’s a treatment shortage, where are these defendants being sent? And what we found is that judges all over the country are oftentimes sending people who face very low-level charges and crimes to these long-term residential treatment programs that claim to provide rehabilitation, but in reality all they are are work camps for private companies and industries.” The journalists’ investigation led them from Oklahoma to North Carolina and other places, where they found stories about varying forms these programs in several states, depending on the regulation, which varied significantly from place to place. Scheer highlights how these programs are in direct violation of the 13th amendment of the Constitution, as Walter repeatedly found throughout her reporting.

“We forget the Founders faced a situation in society where we had a lot of people who were held in the stockade or something, because oh, you violated the terms of your employment, or what have you,” says Scheer. “So tell us about the 13th Amendment and how it applies to your series, because it keeps coming up.”

“The 13th Amendment,” explains Walter, “basically outlawed slavery in the United States. And it states that involuntary servitude is not OK, except essentially as a punishment upon conviction of a crime. So when you have participants who are getting sent by courts to these programs, ostensibly for rehab and treatment for their addictions, what lawyers have told us is there’s an argument that that violates the 13th Amendment. Because not only sometimes are there no convictions in these cases yet, but a lot of the time, even if there are convictions, the courts are saying: this is not for punishment. This is to rehabilitate you. This is to provide treatment so that you can recover from your addictions and become a productive member of society.”

Perhaps most egregious is the fact that these programs not only do not lead to rehabilitation, but more often lead to drug use relapses, untreated injuries, abuse and mistreatment , prison time and, in the worst cases, suicide. In the wealthiest country in the modern world, these programs are a clear example of how, when left unchecked, many American companies seem happy to use free labor to turn obscene profits, despite the moral questions these centers clearly pose. And, to add insult to injury, as Scheer points out, the industries profiting from these abusive practices even “give themselves awards for their prison rehabilitation work.”

Listen to Scheer and Walter discuss the sordid American work camps that pass for rehab centers and what regulators have failed to do as well as what they could do in the future.



Joshua Scheer