Walker’s chicken firm tied to benefits from unpaid labor

ATLANTA (AP) — As Herschel Walker campaigns for the U.S. Senate, he calls for society to help the downtrodden the way he says others helped him overcome mental health struggles. That includes those in the criminal justice system.

“If someone comes out of prison, they should have incentives set up that the person has learned a trade, and you give an incentive for a company to hire him so he can make a living for himself,” Walker said Aug. 17 in Kennesaw, Georgia.

Touting his own success, Walker added that it’s his “responsibility now to help.”

Yet federal court records reviewed by The Associated Press suggest Walker’s food distributorship has gotten a boost, through a firm he touts as a principal partner and supplier, from the unpaid labor of drug offenders routed to a residential rehabilitation program in lieu of prison.

Lawyers for participants in the program, an Oklahoma-based outfit named “Christian Alcoholics & Addicts In Recovery,” decried it in court as a “work camp” that profits from a “vulnerable workforce under the guise of … rehabilitation services.”

It’s not possible to quantify financial gains Walker might have gleaned from undervalued labor. But links among his Renaissance Man Food Services, the processing giant Simmons Foods Inc., and the CAAIR program provide at least some contrast to Walker’s campaign pitch.

Walker is trying to unseat Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, in one of the nation’s marquee midterm elections. Their matchup could determine control of the Senate.

CAAIR began more than a decade ago sending residents to work at Simmons Foods Inc., a company Walker touts as a principal partner and supplier to his distributorship, Renaissance Man Food Services. State judges assign convicted offenders to CAAIR, letting them choose between the residential program or traditional incarceration. Simmons would contract for labor with CAAIR, whose participants were not paid.

U.S. courts have declared such arrangements legal. But many criminal justice experts are critical of the free-labor programs.

“Drug courts are typically a pretrial diversion program,” said Jillian Snider, a former New York City police officer and now criminal justice and civil liberties policy director at R Street, a center-right think tank based in Washington.

Snider described the ideal as “almost like an outpatient program” with professional counseling and skills training, plus some job responsibilities that include wages. Designs based more on work than rehabilitation and skills training, Snider said, are “unique mostly to Southern states.”

A federal lawsuit still pending against CAAIR and Simmons has detailed how some participants were allegedly pressured to work when injured, compelled to attend religious services, and threatened with imprisonment if their work was unsatisfactory. CAAIR, participants alleged in court, did not always provide necessary rehabilitative or psychiatric treatment, the kind that Walker has emphasized when he shares his personal story. CAAIR described its services in court filings as “a combination of work therapy and spiritual and religious counseling.”

Snider explained that “talking to professional counselors” and “being set up with real educational advancement opportunities and skills training” must be included for a “full program,” and that isn’t possible, she said, “if you’re working full-time in a chicken facility.”

Nonetheless, a trial court judge in 2020 rejected participants’ assertions that CAAIR violated federal labor law. An appeal is pending.

CAAIR CEO and co-founder Janet Wilkerson told The Associated Press she “never had any dealings” with Walker. She declined further comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Neither Walker nor Renaissance Man Food Services was named as a defendant. Walker’s campaign declined to comment on the matter, saying Simmons is not Walker’s company. A Simmons representative did not respond to inquiries.

Yet in Walker’s telling, Simmons is a key component of his success. On the Renaissance website, Simmons is the only supplier or partner mentioned by name: “RMFS joins with Simmons Foods to bring quality … products to the retail and food service marketplace.” The website highlights one of its locations as Siloam Springs, Arkansas, where Simmons is based. The relationship dates back as early as 2006, according to Walker’s previous statements to media.

Renaissance advertises as a certified minority owned business — Walker is Black — that works with “supplier partners to meet the needs of our retail and food service customers.” That suggests a relationship in which Walker partners with food processing firms to act as distributor so that an end-line business is buying from a minority owned firm.

CAAIR, meanwhile, bills itself as a faith-based enterprise. Its programs launched in 2008 with six men, according to its website, and by 2015 housed 200 in three dorms.

Throughout the litigation, Simmons and CAAIR have defended their practices. But one thing has never been up for dispute: The men CAAIR sent to the chicken factories were not paid.

“Participants … perform work without compensation at various nearby work-providers, including Simmons,” lawyers wrote in the program’s defense. “This requirement is no secret.”

In court filings, Wilkerson described her “clients” rather than employees. Participant signed documents stipulating CAAIR “did not offer (them) a job” and that they would “not receive wages.”

“Simmons pays CAAIR for the work performed by CAAIR participants at a rate well above minimum wage,” Wilkerson attested.

Wilkerson submitted examples of an “Admission Agreement” that promises “work training at a job site,” along with the requirement of “working at a designated job site.” The documents do not name any prospective companies, explain any jobs or detail any training.

Participants were “free to leave (the program) at any time,” the documents state. But such an action could result in “consequences from the criminal justice system for early departure.”

In a separate federal case against another not-for-profit rehabilitation program, Simmons again defended its practices in a 2020 “friend of the court” brief filed in support of DARP Inc.

Citing Simmons’ relationship with CAAIR, Simmons’ lawyers wrote that “CAAIR operates on the same basic model” as DARP to “provide vocational opportunities for those struggling” with addiction.

Participants worked “to achieve their own rehabilitation, not for the benefit of DARP” or any for-profit firm, the brief states. Further, the lawyers asserted that unpaid laborers receive a benefit beyond money: “a sense of self-worth and accomplishment.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of the elections at: https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections

Check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors at play in the 2022 midterm elections.

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