Arkansas senator's firm sheds rehab program

Posted: November 1, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Sen. Jim Hendren of Gravette is shown in this photo.

The top Republican in the Arkansas Senate said Tuesday that his company ended an agreement with a drug rehabilitation program after former clients accused the nonprofit of keeping their wages and mistreating them.

Sen. Jim Hendren of Gravette said his company, Hendren Plastics Inc., terminated the agreement with the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program after a lawsuit was filed last week in Benton County.

The Oct. 23 filing accused Hendren Plastics, Simmons Foods and several "John Doe" companies of conspiring with rehabilitation programs to use convicts as free labor.

"It's unfortunate because I saw value in the program," said Hendren, who is the Senate majority leader and Gov. Asa Hutchinson's nephew.

Hendren Plastics in Gravette reached an agreement with the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program several years ago, Hendren said, with intentions of providing nonviolent offenders with an alternative to prison.

"They could go through this rehabilitation program, which involves getting clean, and later potentially hiring them," he said. "As long as they complied with our rules, we could help these people have a second chance."

Several participants that started in the yearlong rehabilitation program in Decatur, later graduated and continued working at Hendren Plastics full time. Hendren Plastics paid the program's clients $9.25 per hour and overtime wages, Hendren said.

As of Monday, no clients are working at Hendren Plastics.

"I saw the allegations against my company, and I made the decision that it's not worth the damage," Hendren said.

According to the lawsuit, drug-court defendants sent to these programs worked without pay and in fear of incarceration. Before they are enrolled in the programs, they have to sign documents stating that they understand that they are not classified as workers and won't receive wages. Instead, payments were sent to the programs for rent, food and rehabilitation services -- not for possible court or government fees.

"I was not privy of the details," Hendren said, regarding the program-client relationship.

The lawsuit is one of three filed after the Center for Investigative Reporting published an article exposing the controversial practices of court-ordered diversion programs, such as the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program and Oklahoma-based Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery.

Two Oklahoma lawsuits were filed less than a week after the organization's article, one of which claimed that clients from the Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery never received worker's compensation for severe injuries at Simmons Foods plants. All three, including the Benton County filing, are seeking class-action status.

Little Rock attorneys Tim Steadman and Jerry Garner of Holleman & Associates filed the lawsuit in Benton County. They said Friday that the programs amounted to slavery and were of no benefit to people participating in them.

Simmons Foods spokesman Donny Epp wrote in an email Friday that the allegations in the lawsuits are inconsistent with the company's values and that hundreds of clients continued working at Simmons Foods after completing the rehabilitation program.

Business on 11/01/2017