Reveal reporters Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter were named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the national reporting category today for their investigation into forced labor at drug rehabilitation centers.
“For poignantly exposing a shocking practice that took root in Oklahoma, Arkansas and other states in which, under the guise of criminal justice reform, judges steered defendants into drug rehabs that were little more than lucrative work camps for private industry,” the Pulitzer board said in its announcement.
Harris and Walter published their first story in October on Reveal, the website of The Center for Investigative Reporting, and continue to investigate the practice nationwide. Their work – distributed with the help of The Associated Press – already is having a wide impact.
Many of the defendants never had been convicted of a crime. They were sent to a work camp, forced to slaughter chickens and endure other hard labor for free, under the threat of prison. Grueling, dangerous labor is just about all the addiction treatment they get. The beneficiaries of this new brand of indentured servitude stretch from high levels of political power to Fortune 500 companies such as Coca-Cola and Walmart.
“They work you to death. They work you every single day,” a participant in one of the programs, Nate Turner, told the reporters. “It’s a work camp. They know people are desperate to get out of jail, and they’ll do whatever they can do to stay out of prison.”
The whole system operated across the country, without scrutiny, until Harris and Walter stepped in.
In response to their exposé, at least four government investigations have been launched, including inquiries into workers’ compensation fraud in Arkansas and food stamp fraud in Oklahoma. A Coca-Cola bottling plant stopped using the unpaid labor. Arkansas’ Senate majority leader canceled his company’s contract with one of the camps. Former participants have filed four class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and human trafficking and seeking millions of dollars in back pay from two of the rehabs.
In one of the lawsuits, the ACLU alleges that the program participants were “victims of a modern day forced labor scheme which existed virtually unnoticed for over a decade due to a combination of willful ignorance and enforced silence that was sanctioned by the courts and members of the faith community.”
“We’re so proud of Amy Julia and Shoshana; they’ve worked tirelessly on this story and they’re not done,” said Editor in Chief Amy Pyle. “Their reporting – and the difference it already is making in people’s lives – embodies what we strive for every day at Reveal.”
And congratulations to the winners of the category, the staffs of The New York Times and The Washington Post, for their coverage of the Russia election interference investigation.