Simmons Foods plans vigorous defense against human trafficking lawsuit

by Erica Shaffer
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MUSKOGEE, Okla. – Simmons Foods Inc., Siloam Springs, Arkansas, has denied any association with a rehabilitation and recovery program accused of forced labor and human trafficking.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Oklahoma filed a federal lawsuit naming Simmons Foods and six other defendants on allegations that the companies engaged in a human trafficking and forced labor scheme disguised as a rehabilitation and recovery program called Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program (DARP). The ACLU is seeking class-action status for the lawsuit.

In a statement, the company said “Simmons has no current relationship whatsoever with DARP. These claims are inconsistent with Simmons’ operational policies and core values, and while Simmons cannot comment on the specifics of any pending litigation related to this matter, we want to assure our customers, employees, and communities that we are prepared to use every resource at our disposal to vigorously defend the company.”

The ACLU alleges that the non-profit DARP forced the plaintiffs — and possibility 2,000 other individuals over a 10-year period — to work “…thousands of uncompensated…” hours for the businesses and individuals named in the lawsuit.

“This forced labor scheme was developed by defendant Raymond Jones in conjunction with others in the poultry processing industry, who together created a pipeline for forced labor performed under threats of imprisonment and judicial punishment,” court documents state. “To accomplish this, Jones and the poultry company Peterson Farms, now owned by defendant Simmons Foods Inc., created DARP, a purportedly “not for profit” organization which operates labor camps to house workers under the guise of rehabilitation and recovery services.”

Up to 80 male workers at a time are sent through the program, which has facilities in Tahlequa, Oklahoma and Decatur, Arkansas. Pastor Glenn E. Whitman, who is named as defendant in the lawsuit, allegedly provided the workers to Simmons, R&R Engineering Co. Inc., Hendren Plastics Inc. and Western Alliance Inc., formerly known as Jer-Co Industries Inc.

Simmons Foods is a poultry processing company with self-reported sales of $740 million. The company has operations in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, 4,700 employees and six plants.

Court documents state that plaintiffs were not paid for the hours they worked. Instead, some workers received a “gratuity check” of $500 for completing the six-month program or $1,000 for one year. However, gratuity checks were disbursed at Jones’ discretion.

Workers were kept in cramped quarters infested with bed bugs, according to court documents, and were given spoiled or expired food for meals.

Additionally, the workers who needed treatment for substance abuse didn’t receive help, the plaintiffs allege.

“Plaintiffs and putative class members found themselves at DARP Inc as a court sentence for criminal charges or a plea deal, in order to comply with drug court requirements, or by voluntarily requesting in-patient drug treatment during the course of probation,” the lawsuit said. “Some of the plaintiffs in this action desperately needed drug and/or alcohol treatment and were sent to DARP because they lacked health insurance or the financial resources to pay for in-patient drug treatment. Others did not need drug treatment at all, and instead were sent to DARP by a court as an alternative sentencing mechanism for non-drug related activity.”

On the ACLU Oklahoma website, Brady Henderson, legal director, wrote “…Alternatives to incarceration are an important component to battling the mass incarceration crisis. But profiteering schemes like DARP are not the answer. Without proper oversight, qualified counselors, and meaningful services, incarceration alternatives like this one are ripe for abuse. In the case of DARP, human trafficking is the only accurate description for the forced labor, lack of medical care and appalling living conditions that the plaintiffs suffered through.”

Read the full complaint here.

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