THE NIGHTMARE IN ATALISSA
Robert Canino knows how to tell a story. With his quick wit and command of language, it’s easy to see that he also has a sharp legal mind, which he uses to simplify legalese—for writers and reporters, but also for juries, and most importantly for the people he represents. Listening to him talk reminds you of one of those guys in high school who didn’t have to study and still managed to do well on pop quizzes. Canino can absorb new information and process it quickly so he can use his own experiences to arrive at similes and metaphors, a talent that the best attorneys seem to have been inherently gifted with. It would take these skills to understand his next big case, one that would propel him into the often strange and complicated disability systems that use phrases and terms that are either acronymic or simply incomprehensible (i.e., “enclave,” “substantial gainful activity,” “behaviorally challenged,” and “borderline,” to name just a few). What he didn’t have to learn was compassion, a sense of justice, and a zeal for the underdog. He has spent his career trying to help others, if not to find it for themselves, then to prosecute those who have stolen it away. But before Robert Canino delved into the machinations of the disability industrial complex, he would first take on another case that came to light in 2001, one that later echoed and reverberated in his mind as he came to understand the plight of the men forced to work for subminimum wages at Henry’s Turkey Farm.
Behind razor wire, fifty-two men of Indian origin were held against their will by the John Pickle Company, a silly name that belied the cruelty of its practices. All the men held captive were competent professionals, including high-tech welders, electricians, engineers, and other skilled tradesmen. The Pickle Company served the oil and gas industry, manufacturing pressure valves and steel pipeline couplings for oil transport. It was autumn in Oklahoma, a time of year in the state where temperatures can still climb to the eighties. Like most other rural places, though, the corn mazes and pumpkin patches were in full swing, some of them sponsored by churches. It was one of these churches that sounded the alarm. By this time in 2001, most of the men had been forced to stay in a cramped dormitory that Pickle had them build themselves shortly after they arrived two years earlier. Oklahoma red dirt can be hard, and digging it by hand and erecting a structure was back-breaking labor.
At first the men had been lured to leave India with the promise of excellent salaries, benefits, cell phones, apartments, and cars, all described to sound like the rags-to-riches movie tales of immigrants coming to America. An intermediary in India and a clandestine business associate of Pickle’s, charged each man $2,500 to board the plane for America’s heartland. Once aboard, they were told they would be receiving H1-B temporary work visas, which would allow Pickle to either renew the visas or return the men to India after six months. Once on the ground or perhaps better put, in the compound, which was dirty, unorganized, and greasy, Pickle and his staff began to immediately abuse the men. Because it was shortly after the 911 terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, Pickle often threatened the men with deportation or incarceration, and most of the time both. The men worked twelve- to sixteen-hour days, even after building their own shelter. Their IDs and visas were taken from them by Pickle’s wife. Court records show that the men may have been paid as little as $1.20 an hour when the long days were figured in. They ate poorly, and Pickle liked to supervise them during grocery shopping, making sure they bought cheaply. Milk was only allowed once every three to four days. Food that was bought for the men was often expired, and many of the men, not used to American food, began to lose weight and suffer from lower energy. The Pickles now had control of the men’s shelter, wages, diet, and movements.
The nights were hot and cramped and the days full of danger, with the facilities woefully unrepaired and a lack of caution and care from the overseers regarding safety. Some of the men tried to seek connections with the outside world. At the rear of the Pickle Company property, a fence was also in disrepair; apparently Pickle and his men believed threats and cruel treatment would keep the imprisoned workers from taking any significant initiative to improve their predicament.
At dusk one evening, once the guards who walked the property had settled into their routine of television and drinking, a few of the men crept to the fence and slid underneath, careful to remain quiet. Once under the fence and safely away from the perimeter of the Pickle compound, the men could talk more freely in their own language. Across the street sat a small church. Though only a few of the fifty-two men were Christian, they decided the Hale Pentecostal Church might be their only viable opportunity to find help. Time was short, and they knew Pickle and his men would notice they were missing when the meager dinner was provided later in the evening.
Fortunately for the men their first contact at the Pentecostal church was Mark Massey, a lay pastor. In Massey they found someone true to his Christian beliefs, a family man with a deep sense of morality about how to treat and care for his fellow human beings. Massey tried to make sense of what the men were describing to him about the Pickle working conditions, how their safety was being threatened, including insinuations by Pickle’s Indian associate who had implied that the men’s families back in India could be harmed if they did anything to disappoint the Pickle Company owners. Massey would eventually help nearly all the men escape, staging a late-night rendezvous with a van and offering his own home to house the men as he simultaneously began the search for an attorney. In the end Massey learned from the men that another group of Indian nationals was being held in a similar fashion in Louisiana, so he went on a mission to rescue them too. Massey’s efforts, though, did not go unpunished. He was arrested in Baton Rouge and held for days while the men he had helped to flee the Pickle Company back in Oklahoma gathered money for his bail. A judge tossed out the case against Massey but not before he spent thousands on legal fees after it was alleged that it was the lay pastor who was the trafficker, rather than Pickle and the owners of the Louisiana company. Robert Canino took the Pickle case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and won in court in 2006. The attorneys for the company argued that the practice used to pay foreign workers had some legal merit. “The pay was commensurate for a training program such as this.” Canino recalled the details: “It was so egregious. Here we were in the twenty-first century with servitude, maltreatment, and human trafficking in the heartland. It was not difficult to see the same threads in the horrendous treatment of the men with intellectual disabilities at Henry’s Turkey Farm.”
The Pickle case prepared Robert Canino in other ways as well. As we saw in the congressional hearings on 14(c) dating back to the 1960s and 70s, the issue of what distinguishes an employee from a client, and from someone who is both of those and lives in a housing configuration where work is supposedly compensated in part by the exchange of labor for those living arrangements has been problematic for decades. In the Pickle case, the men were housed by their employer. The statute that allows for subminimum wages, the Fair Labor Standards Act, also grants some leeway to employers who house employees, known as 3(m) credits. Section 3(m) of the FLSA allows an employer under certain circumstances to count as wages “the reasonable cost . . . to the employer of furnishing such employee with board, lodging, or other facilities.”1 Of course, these 3(m) credits, like the 14(c) exemption, are often abused: they are not necessary exemptions for a worker who has stable housing, can communicate her needs and desires, and has equal power in the employer-employee relationship. This was the case with the Indian workers due to their reliance on Pickle for food and housing, communication barriers, their confusion regarding US labor laws, and the constant threat of deportation and incarceration.
At the time the Pickle situation was exposed, the owners of Henry’s Turkey Farm (HTF) had been violating labor laws for more than thirty years. By 2003, though, the Wage and Hour Division at the US Department of Labor had finally become involved and begun an investigation into HTF’s methods of paying men with intellectual disabilities. As early as the 1960s, the owners of HTF, also known as Hill Country Farms, Inc., had begun working with men with intellectual disabilities who had resided in institutions in Texas. In 1966 the Abilene State School agreed to allow the owners of HTF to run a pilot program that would send six men with disabilities to a Texas ranch where they would supposedly learn new skills working with sheep, poultry, and other livestock. This was just a few years after Burton Blatt had covertly exposed the conditions inside the country’s “state schools” and “developmental centers.” In stark contrast to Blatt’s appalling findings, the idea that a for-profit company with “upstanding local owners” such as HTF would be willing to not only help the men but also teach them agricultural skills would have seemed cutting edge. The laws passed to ensure students with disabilities could receive an education that was free and appropriate would not be passed until 1975 and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act as the cornerstone of disability civil rights became law only in 1973, more than a decade after the owners of HTF started picking up the men with disabilities from the institutional grounds for work on farms.
The idea for the initial pilot project of six men gained momentum, and by the early 1970s mental-health officials across the country were trying to find ways to deinstitutionalize people. In this arrangement not only did the men get to leave the institution, but they could learn and live in the community, all of it costing the state of Texas much less money. Oversight was steamrolled by the opportunities for good public relations.
Kenneth Henry and T. H. Johnson had jointly incorporated the business in Goldthwaite, Texas, a small town of fewer than two thousand residents in the center of the state. By 1978 Henry and Johnson had arranged to provide workers to a processing plant in West Liberty, Iowa, more than a thousand miles away. While the state officials in Texas who were associated with disability services greenlighted the practice, the Texas men with intellectual disabilities were essentially being trafficked from their home state to another for the purposes of cheap labor. The men with disabilities from Texas had been isolated and didn’t have the same opportunities as others. The notion that someone wanted them, in another state no less, would be exciting for someone who hadn’t had much freedom or respect in his life. As the situation in Iowa began in earnest, there was need for local housing. The owners of HTS found an enthusiastic partner just down the road from the turkey processing plant, in a place called Atalissa, whose population has hovered around 300 people for decades. An old schoolhouse was converted to provide shelter to dozens of men from Texas. It would become known as the bunkhouse, and the silhouette it cut atop a small incline on the outskirts of the tiny town of Atalissa seemed to perfectly coincide with its century-old frame. A single willow tree stood out front on one side, a maple on the other, and over the years the building had been painted different colors, including a strange sea-green shade with blue trim. A peeling flagpole and an elongated swing set with a single wooden seat had been erected along the sidewalk leading to the single-door entrance. The glass windows were painted over, some panes replaced with plywood. The owners of HTF rented the ill-kept and rundown building from the city of Atalissa for $600 a month, but of course, they charged the men much more. A few of the men with intellectual disabilities worked in the bunkhouse and not at the slaughterhouse, preparing meals, cleaning, and performing general chores, like shoveling snow and replacing rotted boards with slightly less rotted boards, but most of the men living in the bunkhouse were transported back and forth to the slaughtering house. It was a dawn-to-dusk enterprise. Tedious, dirty, cramped, and unlike what they had been promised.
After honing their model of exploitation in Texas, it seemed to Johnson and Henry that they could ramp up the demand side of their offerings using the legally permissive 14(c) subminimum-wage law, as well as the 3(m) housing credits. Like most people outside the disability industrial complex, it came as a surprise to ranchers and other agricultural reps that labor could come at such a low price. To make sure their business model had credibility in the eyes of the human-service agencies in Texas, it was given a name. For short, the program was called the “Magic of Simplicity,” and it was outlined in a written document, essentially a piece of propaganda. The full title included the subtitle “Developing the Abilities of Developmentally Disabled Persons.” If the owners of HTF were trying to emulate the state schools and human-service bureaucrats in Texas and elsewhere, they had accomplished the task. Johnson and Henry included an action phrase, “Developing the Abilities,” meaning that their approach to training and employing men with disabilities had “habilitative” components. Since the scheme was all about billing state or federal funds, “intervention” is always needed.
As in any type of industry, word-of-mouth advertising is beneficial to sales. Hill Country Farms d/b/a Henry’s Turkey Farm was getting its fair share of the spotlight, but by late 1978 cracks were emerging in the scheme. After nearly 600 men had been part of the project, there were allegations of poor record keeping, meager safety oversight, and a kind of macho, stoic approach to injury, working conditions, and the overall “ranch hand” lifestyle. The owners, Johnson and Henry, stated in the “Magic of Simplicity” manual that every man had annual physical and dental checkups and that the staffof HTF provided sick care to men in the bunkhouses, administering meds, including those aimed at reducing seizures and controlling diabetic symptoms. As in the copious congressional hearings over the years, the role of patient/client was at odds with that of trainee/employee, with a dose of resident/renter thrown in to confuse things even more. Imagine being sick in bed, and your job supervisor is your landlord, who also administers your medication. Taking a sick day is never more fraught with discrimination than under this type of predicament inside the disability industrial complex.
Initially, what Johnson and Henry were doing won them some praise. In 1968 the national Association of Retarded Citizens, as it was known then, gave Johnson an award for being an innovative employer. In 1972 Kenneth Henry, fifteen years younger, agreed to combine their two agricultural companies to do business as Henry’s Turkey Farm, under the umbrella of Hill Country Farms, Inc. Over the next decade men with intellectual disabilities from Texas institutions were sent to turkey insemination farms in Missouri, Kansas, two sites in South Carolina, several in Iowa, and one in Illinois. Johnson’s friend at the Texas Vocational Rehabilitation Commission referred hundreds of men to Henry’s Turkey Farm. Johnson received $175 per month per person from Texas in the form of “training funds.” Thousands of dollars a month went into Johnson’s coffers, and that was only the revenue from Texas. Labor contracts with Louis Rich and other processing plants also created a substantial revenue stream in addition to the human-service funds. Johnson was an enigma; he was critical of the red tape that government bureaucracies created, believing it a hindrance to business and entrepreneurs like himself who just wanted to help. He reportedly believed that what he was doing was the best approach to remedy the problems that men with intellectual disabilities presented to state governments, especially those who didn’t have family involvement. Johnson claimed he was training the men to do meaningful work, and housing them too, outside of institutions. He was even skeptical about sheltered workshops. Under investigation in 1979, he told reporter Margaret Engle about the common jobs done inside sheltered workshops, “Mickey Mouse things like packing little plastic forks and spoons in little plastic bags.” In this way Johnson—and later Henry—was aligned with those advocates engaged in trying to close sheltered workshops but with a major distinction: Johnson was not critical of subminimum wages, just the type of work performed by workers with disabilities. Johnson referred to the men as “retardates” and viewed them as boys, rather than adults. At the time such derogatory terms were not uncommon with the general public or inside the disability industrial complex. Explaining why he wanted to help the men leave the institutions in Texas, Johnson told the Des Moines Register: “They resent being put in there with the vegetables,” apparently referencing people still residing in the state schools who also had physical disabilities. Johnson spoke of the men’s IQ scores, giving examples of men with IQs below forty now doing ranch work. If some of the men weren’t as fast as the others, Johnson had them trained to bottle-feed calves. Farming is often rife with “survival of the fittest” mentality, and this worldview crept into Johnson’s treatment of disability, productivity, and labor in general. The workers with disabilities were prodded to work through sickness like beasts of burden. They were housed similarly, and punishment was corporal and meted out with a focus on creating docile workers. The men were fed cheap food and expected to work extra hours if they wanted more to eat. The men labored in guts and blood, eviscerating poultry entrails and performing insemination, a physically challenging task, especially when it involves hundreds or thousands of turkey hens. Even in the cleanest poultry breeding compounds, where a table is used, workers still must bend and stoop over and over, picking up hens that can weigh thirty pounds. While more advanced farms have technology and additional insemination accoutrements, the men with disabilities were performing these tasks by hand, without the proper tools. Bending and picking up turkeys twelve hours a day can easily turn into the equivalent of tons of weight. There are also exposure issues related to insemination, and proper precautions are difficult to adhere to when the space is dirty, unorganized, cramped, and riddled with defecation, loose feathers, and the fine dust from corn and dried manure that is easily inhaled. At Henry’s Turkey Farm all the equipment was rudimentary, and most of the process was done by hand. T. H. Johnson was nothing if not adamant about not having government, OSHA or otherwise, poking around his operations.
In 1979, thirty years before the men at HTF were finally rescued from these horrendous conditions, two reporters, spurred by an investigation by state officials, were reporting on the men’s maltreatment and the strange business model that had been set up by T. H. Johnson and Kenneth Henry, in which they essentially rented out men with disabilities to meat processing plants, offering cheap labor. When the Register article was written, HTS was not only under investigation in Iowa but in South Carolina as well: human-service officials in that state believed a similar bunkhouse used for shelter for men with disabilities trafficked from Texas should be licensed as a group home. Johnson and Henry responded with characteristic antiregulatory rhetoric. “We’re not an institution and don’t want to be treated like one. Government red tape just costs lots of money and doesn’t do any good.” The official response from Henry’s Turkey Farm in 1979 was reminiscent of the early workhouses from the late 1880s through the 1920s, where society’s “less desirables” were expected to work for some philanthropic organization in exchange for housing and food, usually with religious ties, simply because they were poor, declared feeble-minded, or came from families deemed as having genetic problems. To Johnson and Henry the fact that they were happily providing training and employment to men with disabilities was enough, in their minds, to quell the concerns from officials. Johnson was difficult to work with, often relying on his own commonsense compass to guide and direct how workers with disabilities were punished, rewarded, and trained. He fired personnel who didn’t agree with his tactics. A nurse who had worked for Johnson at Henry’s Turkey Farm told the Register, “I won’t say if he’s a saint or the devil incarnate, but he does have a way with the MRs.” If the use of the term “MRs” is any indication, the nurse and Johnson were like-minded, viewing the workers with disabilities not as human beings, but as a group, a herd with no individualization, requiring stern supervision. An official from the Social Security office in Dallas reported seeing an enormous paddle during a visit in 1972. When asked about the four-foot-wide paddle, Johnson commented that he used it on the “boys” to enforce the rules. At other times, Johnson denied using it, but because the workers with disabilities were all young men, they sometimes engaged in the typical boundary testing. Some ran away; others found ways to get alcohol. There were squabbles and personalities that didn’t get along, and to these infractions the owners of Henry’s Turkey Farm and their supervisors responded with more cruelty, eventually taking the extreme measures of tracking down runaways and capturing them for return to the bunkhouse, where they would be chained to the beds so as not to abscond again.
There was a great deal of window dressing, especially during any inquiry or investigation into the operations. During the heightened scrutiny in 1979, Johnson claimed that each of “his boys” would be receiving Christmas gifts valued at $100, and he often told people that he paid for medical care for the men who didn’t have Medicaid. There is no proof that any of the men ever received the “extras” Johnson claimed to provide. It would not be an overstatement to say that Johnson believed he was bringing something new, maybe even innovative, to the debate related to disability, employment, and institutional settings, but he willfully ignored basic principles of humanistic supports.
It was with this backdrop that the two Des Moines Register reporters told the story of the burgeoning suspicions of some families and officials regarding Henry’s Turkey Farm. Other inquiries and investigations into the use of 14(c) were going on simultaneously. The Wall Street Journal investigative reporters, Kwitny and Landauer, had covered the use and misuse of subminimum wages in their two-part series focusing on blind workers. “Blind people for years have entered the job market through so-called sheltered workshops, sheltered by law, that is, from having to pay the blind workers minimum wages.” The reporters from Des Moines had published their pieces on Henry’s Turkey Farm and the labor exemptions that resulted in horrible pay almost a full year before the stories in the Wall Street Journal appeared. By that time in 1979, Congress had held no fewer than a dozen hearings regarding the practice, specifically the unintended consequences and the abuse of the laws guiding it.
The story in the Register ran just two days before Christmas 1979, and it was a scathing piece of reporting with depictions that read like scenes from The Grapes of Wrath. There’s good, evil, and plenty of scrutiny of the Henry’s Turkey Farm owners’ view of disability and common labor practices. The facts surrounding the case that were in clear view of the public, state officials, and advocates is what is most striking. The US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division had begun an investigation in 1979 into how workers with disabilities were being paid, including how productivity was measured, the methods used to gather prevailing wages for similar jobs in the area, and the overall well-being of the men working on the turkey farms. There were other investigations too, some based on second- and third-hand gossip and others that stemmed from professional concerns regarding the “magic of simplicity” approach. It seemed to some that HTF and its owners were more interested in intrastate labor brokering than the training of workers with disabilities. After all, owners Johnson and Henry could make much more by leasing out cheap labor to poultry farms than simply by billing the state of Texas for their brand of rehabilitation—but they were doing both, and making lots of money from several streams of revenue. These private business owners exploiting a cheap labor force were taking direction from the way human-service agencies providing training and employment services operated. It was a shell game, and if there were some references to benevolence or ensuring that people were earning their keep, things were fine. Still, the success of their scheme in trafficking subminimum-wage labor had emboldened Johnson and Henry, and they began brokering even more labor contracts with bigger processing plants. It was a logical extension of Johnson’s history with seeking out cheap, vulnerable workers.
Prior to getting workers from the state institutions in Texas, Johnson had made use of an infamous hiring plot called the Bracero program. Basically, this allowed a guest worker from Mexico to work in the United States for eleven months and returning to the United States after thirty days back home. The Bracero program was the result of a series of bilateral agreements between Mexico and the United States that permitted millions of Mexican men to come to the United States to work on primarily agricultural labor contracts. From 1942 to 1964, 4.6 million contracts were issued, with some workers returning several times on different contracts, making this the largest US contract-labor program in history.2 It was cheap labor, from people with little to no power to dispute pay or working conditions or to organize in any fashion. If you were a troublemaker (e.g., asking questions about safety, pay, or working conditions), after your thirty days back in Mexico, you would not receive permission to return to the United States. The program was controversial, and the activists focused on farmworker justice.
According to Kenneth Henry, his business partner, T. H. Johnson, had wholeheartedly embraced the Bracero program, driving to the border to pick up workers. Now, since the Bracero program was being phased out, Johnson decided that he would need to replace the cheap, easily intimidated workforce. With his connection at the Abilene State School, he began discussions about using men with “mental retardation.” Johnson had a bunkhouse in Texas where the Braceros had been housed that could just as easily be used by the workers with disabilities from the Abilene State School. The similarities between the Bracero program and section 14(c)were clear. Johnson’s friend at the Abilene State School would have had knowledge of 14(c); by the early 1970s the practice had not only spread into communities throughout the United States, but institutional settings embraced 14(c) as well, particularly since state schools and other analogous institutions were under pressure to do more to provide training and life skills for those who had to live there. It was these factors, some the result of the policy’s intended outcomes and others that were unintended, that created a suitable environment for Johnson and Henry to host and ultimately exploit and abuse the men with disabilities.
A labor arrangement was finalized with Henry’s Turkey Farm, the Texas officials deeming it legitimate, and the processing plants in Iowa all too eager to participate; an entire system of labor trafficking had been put into place. At the West Liberty plant in Iowa, the men moved from insemination and cleaning up manure to taking spots on the meat processing lines, working alongside laborers doing the same work at the same speed, but the men with disabilities were paid only $65 a month, while the owners of HTF raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars under several contracts to provide labor. This configuration of “placing” disabled workers inside an existing factory, called an enclave, is a tactic that nonprofit agencies like sheltered workshops use. The word is defined as “a portion of territory within or surrounded by a larger territory whose inhabitants are culturally or ethnically distinct, or a place or group that is different in character from those surrounding it.” The “enclave” model is embraced by human-service agencies responsible for training people with disabilities. They tout the workers as integrated because they are working near workers without disabilities. They use words like “inclusive” and phrases like “side by side with normal workers,” meant to convey to funders that the agencies are engaged in community-based work that matches their flowery mission statements, but these arrangements do exactly what the definition implies. Workers with disabilities in enclaves are seen as different, set apart from the general workplace culture, and in the case of the men with intellectual disabilities doing the backbreaking work, paid much, much less.
The work of killing and processing turkeys for their meat is not pleasant. Loading and unloading crates of cramped birds with defecation from prior transports caked to the wire is repetitive. Lifting heavy bodies onto conveyors, turkeys’ wings flapping and terrified guttural croaks as the soundtrack, is vile. An immersion scalder is used to kill bacteria as well as humidity cabinets where the bodies are sprayed with steam. A vacuum gun sucks out the bird’s lungs. The lung removal gun is a gas pump handle and hose buoyed to the ceiling, while bird after bird, their body cavities open, continually pass on a rolling belt as if they are manufactured. The lung removal gun is shoved into and out of the opening. The operator repeats the motions three or four times on each bird before the next one is up, about twenty birds per minute. The motion to suck out the lungs reminds one of shoving a vacuum hose between car seats when detailing. All the lungs of thousands of turkeys are sucked up and deposited in large silver bins, and the thought of emptying the bins after a twelve-hour shift is nauseating. Blood, intestines, wet feathers with the associated smells, and the sheer quantity of all these elements makes for work that can seep into your soft tissues, leaving one constantly aware of the smells even when not working. In his seminal book The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes about working in a meat processing factory; he uses those smells to remind the reader that the story is about death, for farm animals, of course, but also for the young people sent to Vietnam. The sense of smell can evoke visceral responses. I grew up on a farm, and one doesn’t forget the reek of hundreds of confined animals. The men working against their will at the West Liberty plant had no say in their working conditions; they couldn’t leave, couldn’t decide that the stench and $65 per month was awful and warranted relocating and finding other work. They were expected to climb onto the vans every day at 4:30 a.m. in the dark and ride to the plant to work for long hours, and during winter, returning to the bunkhouse in darkness. The men were dependent on their overseers for shelter, food, and care.
Kenneth Henry recalled in a 2010 deposition that they had been supplying workers for the meat processing plant for over thirty-five years. He testified that at times the dilapidated bunkhouse just down the road in Atalissa held over sixty men. With such a long tenure of trafficking labor, the inevitable happened—men aged, or their physical disabilities were exacerbated by the backbreaking work in the slaughterhouse factory. When a man was too old or couldn’t keep up, he was simply shipped back to Texas where state officials helped find cheap nursing home placements for the men. For the most part, though, the owners of HTF kept the same men for decades. In 2009, when the bunkhouse was raided, most of the men ranged in ages from forty-two to sixty-three. The oldest man working was eighty. Still, with age and the grueling work, some men got sick and died.
Alford Busby was a black man with intellectual disabilities who had lived in Texas institutions and who was selected by both the Texas State Rehabilitation Commission and Johnson and Henry to join the others in Iowa. Alford was part of only 4 percent of black people living in Iowa and the only black man in tiny Atalissa with a population of less than 300. He was a good worker who had been taught to do his best, but he was also a person who needed positive feedback. Like most, he didn’t like to be teased, but at the West Liberty plant he was routinely badgered. Mr. Busby often found the work and the treatment unbearable. At other times he tried to make the best of the situation, to work harder, to try and ignore the harassment; sometimes the men were allowed to go into town, to buy a few things, go out to eat. Alford, like so many people habituated to segregation, isolation, and institutional treatment, developed specific reactions to the abuse. Erving Goffman first coined a phrase in his study regarding the reactions of humans living inside “closed systems,” meaning those under institutional care who cannot exercise control over anything in their daily lives. He called this the “mortification of self,” whereby a person loses any connection to his identify other than that permitted by his controllers. In response, people will employ techniques to survive, often craving the attention and approval of those upon whom they are most dependent. Such reactions can be seen outside of psychiatric institutions, as in sheltered workshops, work activity centers, and in the operations at Henry’s Turkey Farm.
Alford Busby had tried hard to make his captors like him, but the teasing and name-calling kept on. Insults about his race and ethnicity and his label of “mental retardation” were the primary targets. While Alford had threatened to leave before, the supervisors would insist he couldn’t make it on his own, that he had it good in the bunkhouse and on the slaughtering floor. To this, Alford would try once again to do his best work. He wanted to please the men who were tormenting him. The supervisors would remind him of life back in Texas in the institution. But when a supervisor made fun of him again, Alford Busby was ready to flee. It was a normal reaction, intellectual disability or not, but there was nowhere for Alford to go, and no one to go to for help. He had to do tasks he did not prefer, and while most of us have parts of our jobs that we do not like, we are not held captive. Alford was vocal and told the supervisors he was sick of working on the dock. He had a physical disability that impacted the right side of his body, likely a mild form of cerebral palsy, and it took him longer to lift, squat, and perform labor that required a lot of balance. The work of loading and unloading anything was difficult for Alford, but the dock in the poultry processing plant, even in the best conditions, was precarious, considering that a crate of live turkeys can weigh over a hundred pounds and a typical semitruck can hold 2,000 birds. Alford might be lifting up to twenty crates an hour from a truck, and the docks saw thousands of birds arrive daily, sometimes up to 21,000 turkeys in a day. Unfortunately for Alford, his complaints were either ignored, or he was egged on by supervisors, who relied on humiliation as motivation.
The tensions continued to build, and Alford Busby had endured about as much teasing and taunting as he could take. One late afternoon in the middle of an Iowa winter, Alford’s feelings were hurt again when one of the supervisors began belittling him, and Alford stormed away. This was in January 1987, a year after the subminimum-wage floor had been done away with by USDOL, Congress, and the lobbyists for the nonprofit sheltered-workshop industry, effectively repealing the mandatory “50 percent of minimum-wage” rule. Whether or not these changes emboldened Henry’s Turkey staff, Alford Busby and the other workers making sub-minimum wages were not a priority.
Reports also are contradictory about who reprimanded him, how old he was, how tall, and whether he’d “run away” before. Dan Barry, New York Times columnist and author of a book about Henry’s Turkey Service, aptly called Alford Busby “the ever-present blur of the bunkhouse,” because the details of his life and death remain shrouded in the kind of throwaway culture of becoming lost inside the human-service system. One fact is clear though—he was gone and not dressed for the winter cold, and the temperature was already eight below. The supervisors shrugged and joked some more, believing Alford would get his anger out of his system and return like before. Alford wasn’t wearing a coat, or gloves. He had rushed off the docks and down a chute, heading for the frigid Iowa countryside. Dark comes early there in the winter, with grayness turning to black by 4:45 p.m. The cold and nighttime darkness on a farm can be disorienting; barn lights seem to hover and move off kilter; the wind can water your eyes and blot your vision. The awful smells trail away only to resurge as you round the next identical slaughterhouse. When we are upset, our bodies can sweat, our breathing increases, and our blood pressure rises. If we are emotionally upset, after people have been making fun of us, for example, we don’t think as clearly either; if we have been devalued and our sense of self has been demolished from being in an institution, we might not be thinking about our own safety.
The railroad tracks in West Liberty, Iowa, have been upgraded over the years; what was once a single track is operational seven days a week and moves cargo to Omaha and Chicago, with access to the Mississippi River and Illinois River terminals. In the wintertime temperatures can fall to well below zero, as cold as minus twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. We know that there was a search, and that Alford had tried to leave before. We know that Mr. Busby was from Texas and that he’d tried to find his way back before. We know that if he was to survive, he would have had to have gotten more clothing, a ride, some money, and some kindness. It was winter in Iowa.
Alford didn’t make it far—though accounts vary. He likely jogged some and ended up following the tracks and fence lines away from the slaughterhouse. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees, but if our core temperature drops to 95 degrees, hypothermia can begin, meaning that the body is losing heat faster than it can produce it. The human body moves from stage one, where shivering induces reduced blood circulation, to more advanced stages. The pulse weakens, with slower breathing, and the mind is also impacted, with significant loss of coordination, irritability, confusion, and sleepiness. The supervisors who gave him a hard time didn’t bother to go after him, and Alford froze to death. Found several months later by a farmer in April once spring had arrived, Mr. Alford Busby died of hypothermia. The death certificate reads, “Mentally retarded man wandered away from home in sub-zero temperatures.”3 The cause of death is listed as an accident. Alford Jerry Busby Jr. died alone, his head echoing with taunts, his hands and feet burning from frostbite, and his breaths painful from the cold. Reduced blood flow leads to shock and liver and kidney failure; ultimately the heart stops.
Alford Busby had been trafficked from Texas with the promise of something better, but he received only mistreatment and unkindness, all for the purpose of finding, keeping, and maintaining a cheap, pliant work-force. Our legal subminimum-wage policies put Alford there, but our refusal to take the multitude of congressional hearings seriously ensured that the consequences would not be acted upon. By the time of his death, no fewer than half a dozen hearings had been formally held and investigative reports at major news outlets had highlighted the concerns. Still, our taxpayer dollars went to sustain the abuse. Texas citizens underwrote the practices at the Vocational Rehabilitation Commission where officials selected the men to hand over to the owners of Henry’s Turkey Farm. Since every state vocational rehabilitation agency is funded with a mixture of state and federal dollars, all of us helped fund it. Iowa taxpayers, including the city of Atalissa helped fund the death of Alford Busby. We all did, under legal provisions that purportedly are in place to protect workers with disabilities. It’s a lie that spans decades.
One of the other men with disabilities in the bunkhouse reported that Mr. Busby “froze to death . . . made him run off . . . told him he wasn’t doing his work right.” Another man told social service workers, “We planted a tree. . . . They buried him under there and put a tombstone there in the front yard.” The death of Busby also impacted the men in ways that kept them quiet, afraid to complain. “I had to stay. . . . I don’t want to die.”4 It was later clear that what the men thought was a burial plot was some sort of service; the entire ordeal must have been terrifying. Fear is control, and the operators of HTS knew how to use it.
It’s difficult not to see in the operations of the farm, and the treatment of the men with intellectual disabilities, as a kind of livestock analogy at play.5 Social role valorization as developed by Wolf Wolfensberger provides a lens of critical analysis regarding the roles assigned to people with disabilities, who are often marginalized, warehoused in buildings and institutions.6 In this way, the turkey processing plant, and the bunkhouse, can be seen as role influencers. The men are “bedded down” in an old barn-like structure; they are transported together; and they spend their days in toil, treated as less than human. They are fed. They are herded from one place to another; the group takes on one identity, and the individual disappears into the phrase most often used in Atalissa by the citizens, “the boys.” They are placed into the roles of devalued workers, paid less, treated differently, and expected to withstand the conditions. If the men were sick, they were expected to work anyway—after surgery for throat cancer, during the active symptoms of the flu, with impacted teeth, and back injuries. Perhaps the livestock analogy related to social roles breaks down here, because most farmers and ranchers wouldn’t force their animals to work in this way.
Robert Canino was ready to fight for the men in court after the raid in 2009. For expertise about the human-service systems that were supposed to support and safeguard the men of Henry’s Turkey Farm, Canino sought out someone who could help him make sense of it all and who could be presented to a judge and jury as a seasoned expert. He was fortunate to find Sue Gant, PhD, who used her intellect to advocate on behalf of people locked away, segregated, and exploited by the very systems that were supposed to protect them. She had been a subject matter expert in a number of state class action lawsuits. From Georgia to Indiana, and Hawaii to Oregon, she had been instrumental in the closing of state institutions and a voice in ensuring that proper supports were in place for those leaving the walls and razor wire behind, including by focusing on opportunities for employment. Dr. Gant possessed all these skills, but her connection to the land and people made her a perfect fit for the work that lay ahead. Her family had lived and farmed the land in Iowa for generations. Their cattle were raised with care and attention to the details of expert husbandry. To this day, a yearly bull auction under the family name still occurs, almost a hundred years later. She had gone to college and graduate school to study special education, behavioral supports, and developmental psychology. As a young PhD she was recruited to serve in a consultancy role on the reformation of the infamous Willowbrook Institution in New York. She described her first view of the institution on Staten Island. “We flew in on a helicopter in the springtime, and they were doing some annual cleaning. From a distance, up in the air, I could see what looked like one of those big carousels that ponies trod around at fairs, only there were naked people tethered to it, and as they lumbered in a circle, attendants used hoses to spray the people down.”
Willowbrook’s abuses as a cauldron of hellish conditions are legendary. There are photos of children without clothes, cinder block walls covered in feces, rancid food being fed to people strapped into wheelchairs, unable to keep from ingesting it. Willowbrook was touted as a place where parents could trust that their children with disabilities would be cared for, but even now, some fifty years later, many of those same parents are finally finding out what happened to their loved ones, all under the cloak of the state’s benevolent system.7 The history of subminimum wages has always been tied to residential settings. From the beginning in 1938, housing and employment inside the disability industrial complex have been entangled with day rooms, like the ones in Willowbrook and other institutions, often purportedly serving the “vocational” needs of patients. Dr. Gant’s introduction to the magnitude of abuses at Willowbrook formed her intellect and observational skills into a finely tuned set of tools she would use to help liberate thousands of people from so-called treatment, whether inside the walls of an institution or when those same practices were given new names, like “community care,” which once again promised to be better for people with disabilities.
Gant can tell a story with the proper attention to details, and each one can break your heart. She’s a tough human being, but even her voice quivers when she tells some of them. For decades she’s done her work with care and an unflinching ability to stay the course. What she has seen and written about in reports, recommendations, and memorandas, reliving the stories over and over, would break most people; when asked how she does it, she’s sincerely not sure. “I guess I pull on my mother’s example. She was always friends with people others wouldn’t speak to. She believed in dignity. I think I learned a lot from her.”
Robert Canino knew he had to have Dr. Gant sign on to the Henry’s Turkey Service case. A persistent litigator, he was convincing, telling Gant there was no one else on the planet as qualified as she to serve as an expert on the case. It would mean picking up where Canino had left off with interviewing the men at Henry’s Turkey Farm. Thousands of words would need to be written, and her testimony would require the memorization of each man’s story. That wouldn’t be a problem for Dr. Gant, who’s accustomed to processing and retaining massive amounts of details, most of which she can rattle off from years ago—full names, dates, and snippets of conversation.
I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Gant in New Mexico where she served as the court-appointed monitor for the state’s complicated and intense class action lawsuit. It was an experience that Gant would leverage in the case in Iowa. I had been contracted by the University of New Mexico in 2012 to serve as an employment consultant on the state’s long-running lawsuit known as the Jackson class action, filed in 1987 and named for lead plaintiff Walter Stephen Jackson. Mr. Jackson was labeled as “profoundly retarded” in court documents, a distraction from what New Mexico’s state-run institutions allowed to happen, as if such a label somehow reduced the blame. It’s a sickening trait of the disability industrial complex and its many systems: labels are used to deflect responsibility, secure additional funding, and essentially continue the narrative that deficit-based interventions are required, which don’t resemble what most of us think of as work, housing, and relationships. It’s a way to communicate to the public that they should just go on with their busy lives and let the professionals handle the “difficult behaviors of a special population,” a phrase I recently heard during a state’s legislative session, spoken by the CEO of a community rehabilitation provider organization. The debate concerned overhauling funding formulas, from a lump-sum payment method to an outcome-based system where milestones must be reached on behalf of the person being served. CEOs and CFOs of the nonprofit agencies receiving funding from vocational rehabilitation services and Medicaid HCBS funding loathe the idea of switching to an outcome-based configuration and will often resort to such outdated and disrespectful arguments. Labels like “profoundly retarded,” as Walter Jackson was referred to in court documents, serve to create distance between who is and who is not considered an adult with inalienable rights; they function as a sidetracking tool that the disability industrial complex uses regularly.
Sometime in 1986 Walter was left unattended and ingested oven cleaner that had been left out and not secured. In addition, Walter was found to have broken bones, severe burns, and other injuries that had no feasible explanation. In short, Walter Stephen Jackson, through no fault of his own, was tormented, abused, and neglected under government care for twenty-two years at the Los Lunas Hospital and Training School, funded by taxpayers who believed the state of New Mexico was performing its legal fiduciary duties on behalf of citizens with and without disabilities. Unfortunately, Mr. Jackson was not alone, not in the country or in New Mexico. Another resident at Los Lunas was sexually assaulted and died two days later; others had unexplained abrasions, bruises, and injuries including knocked-out teeth, clumps of hair yanked out, and puncture wounds. In its 2010 review of the Jackson class action lawsuit, the Santa Fe Reporter revisited the history of the beginnings of the recorded abuse. “In May 1989, court observers saw the residents running around the room, screaming, and hitting each other. Thirty-nine residents were punished or restrained with ammonia, water mist, straitjackets and the papoose board, a flat board with arm and leg restraints. Others were seat-belted to toilets because only one staff member was available to assist six residents. One person had nine separate infirmary visits for human bites.” Of course, there were “vocational programs” much like the sheltered workshops operating in the community, where residents of Los Lunas were ostensibly receiving some type of training, which usually meant they were cleaning up bodily fluid messes, working in groups at tables stuffing mailers, or doing work on the grounds. They didn’t qualify for the 3(m) credits through USDOL as a way of paying for their room and board, but nonetheless that’s how it was treated. These men and women, who had committed no crime, were paying for their lockup and its awful conditions. Burton Blatt died in 1985, and the Jackson lawsuit in New Mexico started in the late 1980s; one can only imagine his incredulity, believing the expose in Christmas in Purgatory would have made it impossible for any more of this state-run barbarism.
The Jackson lawsuit was one of the lengthiest attempts in the country to eradicate the neglect and abuse that citizens with disabilities had endured in New Mexico’s institutional systems. In 1990 a judge found the state of New Mexico had violated the constitutional rights of thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities—the same year that the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. New Mexico though, through its attorneys (and some elected politicians) wanted the Jackson lawsuit shut down or significantly altered for speedier resolution. Judge James Aubrey Parker, appointed by President Reagan to the US District Court for New Mexico, presided over the case from 1990 through several decades, trying to direct the litigation and an eventual settlement. In 1990 he ordered the state to improve institutional settings and move people with expediency into community-based alternatives; however, the path forward was fraught with competing interests. In states where the rural workforce often finds employment inside institutional settings, their closing means the loss of jobs, which can translate into a loss of votes. Judge Parker denied a motion to dismiss the case in 2000 and again in 2002, when lawyers for the state argued that Los Lunas and other institutions within New Mexico had been shuttered. Judge Parker agreed with the plaintiff’s legal representation that there was much more to do in terms of ensuring community-based services, including vocational supports and primary-care access for the class members. In 2007 Judge Parker ruled that the state must reimburse the Jackson plaintiffs for 2006 attorney and court fees, which he said were “reasonable.” It went on like this, and Dr. Gant fought hard for the rights of the Jackson class members. A formidable advocate, Dr. Gant researched best-practice models of providing community support, including employment; she visited people who had left the institutions in the community to see for herself that people were getting what they needed. It worked and, in the spring of 2019, the lawsuit in New Mexico was settled. Gant’s signature advocacy and belief in the ability of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live, work, and participate in their communities was peppered throughout the agreement. There were ten broad areas of the improvement, such as unannounced visits to homes, quality primary care services, penalties for agencies that didn’t provide excellent, evidence-based care. The state of New Mexico agreed to provide the Jackson plaintiffs with access to supported employment, so that the people with disabilities who had been held captive in the institution could forgo entering a sheltered workshop where they would earn subminimum wages.
The Pickle case for Robert Canino and the Jackson lawsuit for Sue Gant had prepared the two experts in their respective fields for perhaps the most important case in their lives. Both had gained insight into the mindset of those in power inside the disability industrial complex. Canino and Gant teamed up on the Henry’s Turkey Farm litigation to deliver the largest settlement in EEOC history, but first they had to do more homework, starting with a journalist’s story from back in 1979. In that Des Moines Register article on December 23, 1979, Margaret Engel and Mike McGraw, staff reporters, told the story of a businessman under investigation. The headline read, “Retarded Texas Labor in Iowa Turkey Plant.” It was subtitled, “They take home $65.71 a month.” Stories matter, and it was providential for Canino and Gant, as well as the gentlemen from Henry’s Turkey Service, that the record of abuse dated back thirty years.
As Gant began her investigation into the massive, heartbreaking failures at Henry’s Turkey Farm, she had to face not only Alford’s death but the deaths of others too. The men with disabilities told Dr. Gant about a coworker who had died during lung surgery. Another man died of a heart attack in his bed. There was testimony about another worker with terminal cancer who had been sent to a mental-health ward, where he succumbed to the illness. The bodies of some of these men were shoved into a van and driven back to Texas for burial in pauper graves, with Iowa funeral home officials providing the necessary paperwork to transport dead bodies across state lines.
Dru Neubauer, who was on the payroll as a supervisor and who took the men back and forth from the bunkhouse to the slaughterhouse, is quoted on February 7, 2009. “I’ve had some of them die in my arms. We had to take the bodies down to Texas, take them back to where they came from. We pulled the seats out of the van and loaded them up, you know, in the coffin, and drove their bodies back down to Texas.” These were the same vans Neubauer used to haul the men to work at the turkey farm. As the men aged and contracted illnesses and aging conditions, some of them were also hauled in this way back to Texas, still alive but unable to work as they had. Texas officials once again helped Johnson and Henry “manage” their workforce and liability by placing the men in nursing facilities. The men didn’t have a say about where or with whom they roomed with in these places, and to be clear, these facilities, while better than the bunkhouse, were still low-end nursing homes, where they became patients once again. Underfunded and understaffed, the nursing homes were little more than a stop before the end.
The men had been performing alongside others doing the same work and being paid gross wages of nearly $2,000 a month versus the $65 each worker with a disability was paid monthly. For the remaining thirty-two men, it would be a sister who ultimately saved the men from the chains of servitude and abuse. Thirty years after the Des Moines Register reports in December 1979, she called the EEOC in 2009 on behalf of her brother. By then, Johnson, the man who had first started working with Texas officials to take men from institutions and use them in turkey processing plants across the country, would be dead. Kenneth Henry, Randy and Dru Neu-bauer, and Danny Miles were the primary informants for the defense of their deeds. The surviving thirty-two men, Gant, and Canino would take up the work of attempting to expose the abuses at Henry’s Turkey Service. As Gant interviewed the men, sometimes face to face and sometimes on Skype, her focus was on their well-being. “Some of the gentlemen needed lots of support to relive the horrors, and if they required it, I’d hold their hand. Others were eager to talk, and of course, a great deal of those conversations were also therapeutic.”
In her final report to the court, she stated, “Defendants and their agents freely created a work and living environment of terror for the workers with disabilities. Incidents of assault and mistreatment were so pervasive at work and at the bunkhouse they did not know when the next act of abuse would occur.”
Even their tormenters testified that the men were credible and able to distinguish fact from fiction. The men rose at 3:30 a.m. each morning to dress, quickly eat, climb onto the vans by 4:30 a.m., and arrive at the turkey slaughterhouse hours before sunrise. The entire enterprise reeked of killing and dismemberment, with terms like the “kill wall,” “scorch vats,” “blood troughs,” and of course the “lung removal gun.” The work environment served to reinforce brutality, and the effect was an overall atmosphere of death. Dr. Gant reported to the court on the atrocities:
The abuse and negligence by the defendants allegedly occurred at the work site (plant) and the company bunkhouse. HCF/HTS and its agents engaged in disciplinary actions that violated the workers’ right to be free from abuse as a consequence for what the supervisor claimed was unsatisfactory job performance. Consequences included physical, verbal and psychological abuse, harassment, denying workers access to their personal possessions, restricting freedom of movement and demanding labor without pay to benefit the employer. Conversely, there is no evidence of actions the employer took to improve job performance. According to testimony of the aggrieved men, and consistent with DHS reports and interviews, crew chiefs Randy Neubauer and Danny Miles, who supervised the workers at the plant and at the bunkhouse, engaged in a variety of abusive behaviors that included: hitting and kicking, yelling, name calling, withholding pay/wages, and ordering the handcuffing of at least one worker to a bed. Dru Neubauer, also a crew supervisor, but mostly a supervisor at the bunkhouse and Iowa manager of the men’s wages, actively engaged in abusive behaviors and neglected her responsibilities to oversee the worker’s health.
Dr. Gant holds back no punches. Reading the report is to partially absorb the tragedies the men endured over the decades. To bolster the senselessness of their treatment, Dr. Gant invokes a similar argument I’ve tried to establish from the beginning of this book. That is, since the passage in 1938 of 14(c), there have always been better, more humane and science-based supports and interventions that could have been used for the benefit of the men at the slaughterhouse, and for all others as well. It’s an erroneous conclusion to simply shrug our shoulders and say, Yes, this is not great, but what’s to be done? The question being: If we know what works, if we know which interventions respect the dignity and honor the presence of everyone’s talents, why then would we settle for anything less?
Punishment was high on the list for the owners and supervisors of Henry’s Turkey Service. Once social workers and case managers from Iowa’s human-service agencies descended on the bunkhouse in 2009, the stories started to be told almost immediately. One worker with a disability named Tommy told the officials that he sometimes only got $30 of his $65 a month. Tommy told stories about coworkers being denied breaks, and how the Neubauers favored withholding personal items like TVs and other electronics, cell phones, and VCRs and services to reprimand and control the men. Medical and dental care was also used as punishment. At deposition the HTS staff did not deny these forms of retribution, applied if a worker complained, didn’t follow orders, or simply talked back. Keeping trafficked laborers quiet and afraid to talk is a common technique, as in Canino’s Pickle case and the brutish approaches documented by Burton Blatt in the institutions he covertly visited.
One of the men told Gant a descriptive and corroborated story about Randy Neubauer’s temper and management style. The incident occurred in the packing room at the plant, where the turkeys were prepared for shipment out to grocery stores. The worker with a disability was shoved by Randy up against the kill wall, where he proceeded to yell at the man and kick him in the shins. The same worker reported another supervisor, Danny Miles, had hit him in the left eye.
In fact, the HTS staff and supervisors were often the focus of the West Liberty Foods plant manager, Tom Alberti, who had taken the time to write a letter to Kenneth Henry relating his concerns over Randy Neu-bauer’s abusive treatment of the men with disabilities. Alberti even asked that Neubauer not come to the plant. Still, Randy was reported to have used kicking the men as a primary tool for punishment. He kicked them in their crotches, in the shins, at the back of their legs. One worker reported to Sue Gant, “I learned to stay out of his way. Someone didn’t do (the) job right, somebody paid for it. He’d yell and scream and cuss.” There were reports from the men that they had seen other workers with disabilities with bloody mouths. One worker reported he was often kicked from behind, resulting in injuries to his testicles. When this worker was transported back to Texas because he could no longer work, it was reported that his testicles were “enormous” from swelling.8
The men were saved when the bunkhouse was raided in February 2009. The place was a death trap, with space heaters and tangled wires, cardboard boxes, and clothing spread out like a dump. There was asbestos in the ceilings. No light came in at the boarded-up windows. Rodents were a problem. The adjacent Quonset hut was packed with junk. It was never a secret about what was happening there and at the slaughterhouse, but somehow, with the light of national media on the place, town, and practices, it seemed like the horrors had been hidden in plain sight. Out front of the strange-colored bunkhouse, with its electric-teal paint and black, covered windows, there was a granite stone, a memorial for Alford Busby. Some of the men again reported that Busby had been buried there (perhaps they were told that), but he lies next to his mother in a Texas cemetery.
In the end, the human-service systems acted in 2009, not at glacial speed as they had from 1979 forward, but quickly, with coordinated care, and with direct action aimed at first helping the men find safe places to sleep and live. An order from the fire marshal carried the most weight; the bunkhouse was uninhabitable—and just like that, after decades of abuse and neglect, the best care and attention was provided. What came out, the deaths, the physical and verbal abuse, and the town’s reaction, would shock most people but not those who had warned about the abuses in 1979. For them, it was an awful and sad example of what happens when people are devalued, segregated, and when an entire small town believes that “the boys” are being cared for by their overseers. Even now, there are those who don’t believe the stories, the book, the documentary, and the sworn statements, admitting to the mistreatment, given by insiders at Henry’s Turkey Service. What was noticeably absent from the media coverage was the issue of how little the men were paid. At most, it was a tertiary reference, but it was and is the central point of public policy. There are other issues—such as governmental oversight, and the myths and stigmas we as Americans hold of people labeled with intellectual and developmental disabilities—but the existence of the special rules under USDOL to allow special pay for these workers creates a rationale for regular community members to believe everything must be on the up and up.
Some of the men found places to live in Iowa, others found their families because of the media coverage. Several, like Willie Levi, also found jobs where they were paid fairly, more than minimum wage. So, what had changed? Did Willie suddenly develop skills he’d never had before? Did he lose his disability? Maybe he and others had somehow been miraculously cured. Of course not. Instead, they and their supporters found jobs and employers who saw their strengths and didn’t highlight their weaknesses, like all of us do. Those employers bypassed the special 14(c) waiver and did the right thing. But we cannot rely on that to be the case; public policy is a guard against harmful practices, but it’s useless when it embodies and emboldens the very unequal treatment under the law for which it was originally designed. Public policy must be updated continually in a capitalistic economy.
Four years after the bunkhouse was raided and HTS staff had given depositions, the case went to trial. Gant described the scene: “I was asked to expound on the final report I’d written and about the stories the men had told me. It was a brand-new courtroom with high-tech capabilities. We had a photo of each man projected from an LCD in the ceiling which made their photos enormous on the wall. They were getting their say, finally getting to tell, if not all their stories, at least the most salient parts. They weren’t “boys” or “mentally retarded” or any of the other labels they’d been given. We used their names and gave them the respect their hard work deserved. We honored what they’d endured for so long.”
The news regarding the litigation and the ultimate decision was powerful. The tales of the men traveled quickly, and emails circulated among people all over the country interested in justice for the men, but also in the larger picture regarding the future of disability wage policies. Curt Decker at the National Disability Rights Network believed the report that NDRN had issued about HTS had helped usher along much-needed scrutiny. NDRN had been instrumental in 2011 and 2012 with a paper titled, “Segregated and Exploited: Call for Action,” regarding the men in Iowa but Decker took the fight further. He wanted to get the attention of ordinary citizens, not just the professionals in the disability industrial complex. Some had claimed Decker wanted to put sheltered workshops out of business, but he insisted, “We are asking that they change their business model to focus on real jobs with real pay.” It was working, with stories across the country in print and on television, focusing on Ohio, Rhode Island, Oregon, and Minnesota, and pieces airing on NPR and CBS. An article in the Columbus Dispatch, titled “Workshops Still Get Most Federal Funds for Disabled,” examined the practice in Ohio as it was laid out in Decker’s NDRN report. The sheltered workshops in Ohio received thirty-five times the amount of funding ($175 million) that the supported-employment programs did to help workers with disabilities find real jobs for minimum wage. “Seventy percent (70%) of the 21,000 Ohioans with disabilities who were employed and receiving services from county boards worked in sheltered workshops. About eighty (80%) percent were making less than $3.70 an hour.”9 Maybe, just maybe, there was a crack starting to widen in the walls of the disability industrial complex. With the story out in the open, exposing some of the best-hidden secrets of the practices that brought the Iowa men to their plight, there would be increased will on behalf of legislators and policy gurus to take a serious look at what had transpired and to change the public policies that allowed it.
The headlines related to the men with disabilities toiling away in Iowa were powerful. Robert Canino and Sue Gant had teamed up to deliver a result that was stunning:
On May 1, 2013, a jury in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa in Davenport rendered a verdict of $240 million in favor of the 32 workers. The jury found that for years the men went unpaid and were subjected to substandard living conditions, restrictions on personal freedoms, denial of medical care and harsh discipline as well as verbal and physical harassment.
This largest jury verdict ever obtained by EEOC was later reduced to $1.6 million, representing $50,000 in compensatory and punitive damages per man based on applicable statutory caps under the Civil Rights Act of 1991. An earlier award for unpaid market wages for a two-year period, together with the damages for the treatment, brought EEOC’s total judgment to $3.74 million. Notwithstanding the elusiveness of the company’s assets in the years surrounding the litigation, collection of the judgment through garnishments and liens had recently reached an accumulated amount of about $272,000 prior to this latest court order. The confidential agreement to change the beneficiaries of the Texas land deal to re-direct proceeds away from possible payment for discrimination was dated July 2013, only one month after the June 2013 final entry of judgment in favor of EEOC in the discrimination case.10
The city of Atalissa, Iowa, wanted to be known for more than the awful stories that had been exposed in the bunkhouse the town had rented to the owners of Henry’s Turkey Service. Some residents felt they’d been portrayed as not caring about the men, while others had harbored some negative feelings about how the men were treated but had kept the thoughts to themselves. Sue Gant told me, “It’s a sort of Midwestern notion. You work, and you don’t often speak up. And you must understand that the church and the convenience store the men visited regularly, people in both places, tried to help even if they were not aware of their own biases.”
The town had certainly been involved. In July of 2014, the bunkhouse was swept off the landscape, leaving smoothed-over dirt with tire tracks. Still, there were people who had not accepted the stories of abuse. Ryan Pace lived near the bunkhouse. “It’s one of those things they say it happened, and I don’t believe it,” he told the Quad City Times. Carol O’Neill, also a resident of Atalissa, her home not far from what had been the site of the bunkhouse, said, “I’m sorry. I know they’re men, but they were considered our boys.”11
The rumors and heresy still exist in the town. Kevin O’Brien has a unique view of what happened in Atalissa. He was an employee of the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the US Department of Labor and had examined the practices of subminimum wages at HTS. His early investigations were included in court documents. A resident of Davenport, and a Catholic at the Holy Family Parish in the same town, O’Brien had spent decades at USDOL and worked inside the WHD, the same part of USDOL that has been tasked with oversight of section 14(c) for more than sixty years. Mr. O’Brien’s faith played an integral role in his profession. “I’ve always been interested in fairness. I think this was one of the most significant cases of abuse I’ve been associated with,” O’Brien told the Catholic Messenger, the newspaper of the diocese of Davenport, Iowa. He continued, “What each agency (involved in the case) needs to do—and maybe all of them together, and maybe Congress—is to ask: How did this happen?” O’Brien went on: “Someone taught me early on when I was a rookie: Follow the money—that’s where the problems are.” Of course, Congress had already held many hearings regarding the issue. In the congressional hearings as early as 1966, officials testified that WHD (the division O’Brien worked in) had extremely limited capability to oversee and ensure the correct and legal application of the special waiver allowing for subminimum wages.
The leveling of the Atalissa bunkhouse can be seen as a deeper sign of our own psychological views on human-service systems and the disability industrial complex at large. Our American reaction to abuse and neglect in relation to vulnerable citizens is often laced with the faux history of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.” The foundations of independence, individualism, and the ideals of exceptional Americanism wind their tentacles into our reaction to something like the preventable tragedy in Iowa. Our collective values tell us that if we simply bulldoze the foundation of the bunkhouse, we have remedied the situation; we can build another structure, both physically and psychologically, and right the course of poor public policy. It is something that happens again and again in the disability industrial complex: old ideas that have no basis in proven interventions are recycled as new ideas, and somehow we believe if we just provide new buildings, with greater oversight, all will be made well. While that approach may feel good to our collective conscience, the disability industrial complex is an unresponsive conglomerate. O’Brien asked in the Catholic Messenger: “How did we not take action to eliminate this in 1979?” As Americans, we still carry those templates of deficit that were used to rationalize eugenics in the United States and then export it to Nazi Germany.
In the fall of 2012, I met Dr. Gant in person for the first time. I was in New Mexico working on the Jackson lawsuit for which Dr. Gant was the court-appointed expert. My role was to offer up expert advice and support so that class members could leave segregation and subminimum wages and find real work for real pay in their respective communities. By then, the stories of the men living in Atalissa and working at HTS had been exposed. I rode along with an official from New Mexico to a restaurant in Santa Fe. I was nervous to meet Dr. Gant because of her larger-than-life advocacy work. I’d heard Dr. Gant speak before, read lots of her reports, and admired her dedication and sharp mind, both put to serious use in advocating for systems change. We joined Dr. Gant and another colleague in a small booth, snacking on chips and salsa. The Southwest had been difficult for me to connect with; the mountains and desert unsettled me, since I was used to the flat farmlands of Indiana and the Georgia pine forests. All that open space with very few gas stations vexed me, and I told Dr. Gant about it. She smiled and asked me, “How’s the work going in Gallup?” The Jackson class members lived all over the state, and I had been assigned to work with plaintiffs who lived in Gallup, who also worked in sheltered workshops. Dr. Gant really wanted to know how the work was progressing. She could read field reports, access data, and do her own investigating, but she wanted to hear from someone who had just been there.
One of the men for whom I was assigned to help find work outside the sheltered workshop was named Leo; he spoke using a mixture of Navajo, Spanish, and English, all mixed together into a musical pattern of speech that at times was difficult to follow. I told Dr. Gant about Leo, and I was smiling while telling the story because I’d connected deeply with him. I was eager to see him each month when I flew from Atlanta to Albuquerque and drove two hours west toward the Continental Divide. I was charged with organizing a team to assist Leo to find work. He was nearly seventy when I met him, and I told Gant how the staff at the sheltered workshop had labeled Leo as unproductive, off-task, and easily distracted. The staff at sheltered workshops evaluate workers with disabilities to determine the correct subminimum wages they should be paid, and it’s a gamed approach, one that relies on very little science and even more guessing. Leo’s chart stated that he should be paid seventy-eight cents an hour for work recycling cardboard. Dr. Gant shook her head; even after all she had seen and reported on, she was concerned about Leo. Still nervous, I told her Leo seldom showed interest in using the compactor to pack and bind stacks of cardboard but instead preferred music.
Our food was brought to the table, and we began eating. I kept talking too much. Dr. Gant placed her fork down beside her plate and held up a finger. “Leo spent decades in an awful institution,” she reminded me. I nodded. “I know you’re not working with the strongest of teams,” she said, looking me in the eye, “but you’re his last hope at having a life, remember that.” She went back to eating, and I realized I needed to try harder for Leo. At the end of the meal, as we were preparing to go our separate ways, Dr. Gant gave me some parting words. “Leo is getting what the men in Iowa didn’t get.” She smiled, but I didn’t understand. She said, “Leo’s got you.” I was stunned and humbled.
Leo began his first job outside the walls of a sheltered workshop in the fall of 2013. He was paid $8 an hour, about ten times more than what he had been paid on subminimum wages. We’d used a process called “Discovering Personal Genius” with Leo, a technique created and perfected by Cary Griffin and another strong advocate named Dave Hammis. Their work was built upon Blatt’s angst and Gold’s instructional values. “Discovering Personal Genius” (DPG) relies heavily on spending time with a person to learn about her strengths, interests, motivations, and—my favorite—her endearing traits. Instead of using tests, assessments, and rehabilitation remediation, DPG utilizes environments where the person is at his best, doing the kinds of tasks he likes and using a team to help figure out how best to support him in working a real job. DPG leads to Customized Employment, the approach demonstrated by the Office of Disability Employment Policy in its grants in the early 2000s.
As I spent time with Leo, it became clear that he loved music, especially stringed instruments. He stowed guitars under his bed, most of them handmade from cardboard. He had been labeled unproductive at recycling cardboard at the sheltered workshop, but he was a genius at using the same material to fashion guitars that actually played. One afternoon, while making toast with him in his kitchen, two women who worked in the group home told me how much Leo liked being called “abuelo” by their children. On his trips to the Dollar Store on Sundays, he made sure to buy Tootsie Rolls for the kids. With Leo’s unique use of language, I needed to rely on getting to know him through other people as well, also a part of the DPG technique, so I interviewed as many people as I could find, those who had worked at the group home in the past, staff from the Los Lunas institution, case workers, coworkers he liked at the sheltered workshop. As with many people trapped inside the disability industrial complex, most if not all the people who knew Leo were paid to be with him. I heard about his love of being called a grandfather, his habit of making sure to offer guests whatever candy he kept in his jacket pocket, his unique way of talking that never failed to capture the imaginations of kids. An entry in his file identified a goal for him to “talk correctly” and to use English. His file also had other entries, all of them used to bill Medicaid and vocational rehabilitation for services. Still, at seventy years old he had not been deemed productive enough to work in a job in the community. Ever since he had left the institution some agency or another was making money off him by claiming to be working on whatever problems could be diagnosed. Just like the men in Iowa and in the work activity centers and sheltered workshops around the country, Leo was a commodity, a living, annual budget that could be tapped for billing. The nonprofits should be remunerated for their efforts, but those efforts should be focusing on the worker’s strengths, talents, and skills. Funding should be driven by evidence-based practices that actually produce an employment outcome. Why had someone in the system that supported Leo not thought to use his best attributes and interests to make a job match in his community of Gallup, New Mexico? Just because a human being, regardless of disability label, is bad at one thing, or isn’t interested in it, doesn’t mean that they won’t be good at other tasks they prefer. Why would those trained in human services assume that Leo would be unproductive in any job simply because they had observed him in a segregated setting? It’s a recurring theme in this debate: if you don’t believe someone can learn, and you are paid to focus on their deficits, then the system will perpetuate more problems to be fixed, making the cycle of rehabilitation an endless one that doesn’t serve the person needing help. Arguing that we need subminimum wages for workers with disabilities and special places to work can be seen as the ultimate confirmation that those false assumptions are correct. Nothing supports low expectations better than investing in a system that promotes those same low expectations. Community rehabilitation providers need workers with disabilities who always need more training, more “fixing,” because otherwise the business model doesn’t work.
One of the approaches that DPG relies on is facilitating a team that can be enlisted to help a specific job-seeker find work that suits them best. Starting with music and guitars, the team searched the community and surrounding areas for others with the same interest. We stumbled upon a man named Robert Brochey in Blue Water, New Mexico, about thirty miles away. Leo and I met with Mr. Brochey to ask him for advice about ways that Leo could use his talents in his community of Gallup. Mr. Brochey’s business is named after the town he lives in. Blue Water Guitars is an artisan enterprise run by a man who is talented beyond measure; Brochey has been playing guitar for over forty years and has worked on acoustic instruments of all kinds during that period. He started rebuilding older acoustic guitars first, learning how to repair and refinish them, and has since been building different styles of instruments from scratch, including archtop guitars and oud body–style guitars, a short-necked lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument. Brochey specializes in romantic period instruments and built a replica of an 1816 Jose Martinez salon guitar. When Brochey saw pictures of Leo’s handmade instruments, he smiled. We met at Angela’s café in the train station in Gallup. He didn’t ask about Leo’s diagnosis or his productivity level, and he didn’t suggest that Leo continue attending a sheltered workshop and day program. He saw another person like himself—a guitar aficionado who liked building guitars. While Brochey used maple and purple-heart wood, Leo had to rely on found items for his creations. They were kindred spirits, and Mr. Brochey told me he could help. He wasn’t a vocational rehabilitation counselor or a remedial skills technician, but he would help create a job for Leo. He put me in touch with the executive director of the Gallup Cultural Center, which was funded in part by a nonprofit called the Southwest Indian Foundation, which serves the peoples of the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni nations.
Along the way there were a few human-service professionals who had to be convinced that Leo could and should work. On one of my trips from Gallup back to Albuquerque, I met with Leo’s legally appointed guardian, who was his advocate and who represented him to the judge since Leo was part of the Jackson lawsuit. She didn’t seem excited about the prospect of Leo’s getting his first real job, but she gave her blessing for me to continue. On the next trip, a smart woman named Lupe, who was also working on the New Mexico lawsuit, and I met with Colin McCarthy, the executive director of the cultural center. We showed him pictures of Leo working on his guitars and playing instruments. One of the goals of the cultural center was to increase its relationships with the local elementary schools. Over the course of several weeks, we continued to support Leo and promoted his talents to McCarthy. We gave him Leo’s visual resume (a customized-employment tool that shows someone at their best, either using photos or video). We learned that the cultural center had been thinking about ways to support more field trips from the elementary schools to the cultural center. In the end, we created a pitch that McCarthy could take to the board of directors. Leo would host music exploration events on field trips to the cultural center for kids from third to sixth grade, and he would help them tour the Storytellers Museum upstairs. We assisted Leo in creating a presentation focused on his heritage, his time living at the institution, and his love for music, guitars, and life. He could play the presentation from a laptop and project it on a screen through an LCD. With funds from vocational rehabilitation, Leo purchased a kiosk from which he sold novelty musical instruments that the children could purchase. He wanted a sign on the kiosk that read: “Abuelo’s Music!” The schoolkids loved Leo, and he relished his newfound role. The Southwest Indian Foundation approved funding to pay Leo above minimum wage. They created and advertised the new service that Leo oversaw at the Gallup Cultural Center, taking out a full-page ad in the newspaper to promote it. A vice principal helped to make sure that the teachers were aware of Leo’s program and was delighted that the social-studies teachers could request a bus and driver to go on the field trips. The program was a success. Leo’s talents were being put to great use in his own community. He had a socially valued role as an educator and as an entrepreneur, and he was helping to solve the needs of the cultural center.
Sadly though, Leo only worked outside the walls of the sheltered workshop for a year or so. He passed away and was buried in a cemetery in Gallup, where the pale desert sand is mounded to cover the body since the ground is so hard to dig. For just a little while, Leo was an abuelo to some kids who were fortunate to learn from him. Imagine what he would have been able to accomplish if the agencies with funding to help him for the last forty years had done better. How many children could he have taught? What would his impact on them have created in their own adult lives? Leo’s community needed his talents not just for one year, but for decades. It’s a story that has, and is, playing out all over the country. Policies like subminimum wages destroy a citizen’s potential contributions. Segregating and separating people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from the broader community is bad public policy. The entire disability industrial complex has been conceived and operated within the strictures of prejudice and a paternalistic overlay that mimics the institutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
While it has become a tendency in the early years of the American twenty-first century to lobby for a specific voting bloc’s public-policy desires (parents not wanting to vaccinate their children, earmarked tax dollars that can’t be used for reproductive health, or bakers so offended by someone’s love that they have special bills passed to exact their personal biases), things are not supposed to work that way. Public policy is an instrument that pervades our lives, from the mundane—like which days your recycling is picked up—to more significant issues—like labor conditions, access to healthcare, and disease prevention. The most important element in creating public policy is to value the common good enough that partisan balking cannot politicize its evolution. Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act has not evolved because it benefits the prevailing forces inside the disability industrial complex to maintain it as is.
The powerful tools used to assist Leo were first developed by Marc Gold and carried on by Michael Callahan, Cary Griffin, and Dave Hammis. Those tools were codified by the USDOL at the Office of Disability Employment Policy, put into legislation, and defined in the Federal Register. The men in Iowa were never offered these services, nor were they afforded the opportunity to make minimum wages because it was more profitable to keep them defined as “disabled” and “retarded.” Almost since its inception, there have been alternatives to 14(c) subminimum wages.
How did what seemed like a viable pilot project in Iowa and Texas (for the time back in the late 1960s) turn into such a corrupt and harmful scenario? Why did Johnson and Henry’s labor trafficking not end until 2009, especially since the Des Moines Register reporters had not shied away from delving into the controversy in 1979?
To answer that question, I asked several people who have led the charge to end subminimum wages and support more employment for fair wages in real jobs. Nancy Brooks-Lane, who closed sheltered workshops near Atlanta, feels there’s an insidious notion that keeps the current system in place.
When I first began in this field, there were people starting their careers with the utmost concern for how people were being treated, in the institutions, the sheltered workshops and day activity centers. They wanted to change the system, challenge the status quo, but as more and more layers of bureaucracy were created, their voices were muffl ed. Back then, it was common to hear all the time that disability rights are civil rights. So, the very best people who had started in this field began to drift away, taking jobs where they could effect change, in voting rights, in other social justice areas where they were needed. It left us with skeletal staffing and people who were just looking for a job. Talented, creative and dedicated people can change anything, and that scares the entirety of the Disability Industrial Complex. It took 30 years to put an end to the Iowa abuses for two reasons, one, we didn’t have the best people working in the field and two, that leaves room for all kinds of motivations to take over, like money over dignity. The men in Iowa could’ve had good jobs and been healthy and contributing citizens but they didn’t have access to the best people who were interested in their personal, civil rights.
Cary Griffin, who developed “Discovering Personal Genius” as an approach to get people jobs like Leo’s in New Mexico, told me he thinks Henry’s Turkey Service got away with their crimes for so long because of what Brooks-Lane mentioned plus a mindset of disability that hasn’t changed much since Burton Blatt’s time. “Chronic unemployment, and segregation isn’t a flaw in the system, it is the system.”
Curt Decker, the lawyer and activist who was one of the first to call for renewed action in 2011, using the backdrop of Henry’s Turkey Service to put an end to subminimum wages, finds it extraordinary that 14(c) was not abolished as soon as the men had been rescued. Decker’s paper, “Segregated and Exploited,” which was distributed widely throughout state and federal systems, also found its way to investigative reporters. The paper had the backing of national advocacy groups, including the entity he leads, the National Disability Rights Network.
I manned the phones for almost three days straight, talking with reporters, lawyers, families and people with disabilities who’d only been given the option of subminimum wages. It was somewhat overwhelming. Of course, at the time the New York Times hadn’t covered Iowa so while we’d always had the goal of helping change the employment services for workers with disabilities, there seemed to be a real, tangible window for change. The fact that almost ten years later we’ve only seen marginal legislative changes doesn’t surprise me, but it does make me wonder what it will take. If men being chained to beds because they ran away from abuse and wages of servitude doesn’t make the abolishment of 14(c) a reality, I’m not sure what will.
Robert Canino, who led the way to a settlement for each of the men, wasn’t through though. Not long after the HTS case was finalized, he received a tip about similar abuse in South Carolina.
The gruesome reality of hauling livestock to market is that death begins at the start of the trip. Chickens and turkeys are crammed into cages that are then layered onto semitrucks. Since death is imminent, no one spends much time worrying about losing some of the animals on the trip. Those that perish on the way are called DOAs, and the bodies must be removed and handled differently from live animals. That’s the job that one of the men in South Carolina had. It is thought that social workers in Iowa who had helped the men of HTS find safe places to live had also uncovered a connection that led to South Carolina. The men in Newberry, South Carolina, had all originally worked for the turkey plant in West Liberty, Iowa. This time the nonprofit agency was called Work Services, Inc., an ironically named entity that supplied the men to the Kraft processing plant in Newberry. The story was remarkably like the one in Iowa. Robert Canino called it “one of the most uncomplicated” he’d seen related to violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “A clear-cut matter of an employer exploiting the trust of vulnerable workers.”12
The South Carolina operation was smaller in scale, but the same tactics were being used. The men had been trafficked from Texas institutions to Iowa and then on to South Carolina. The living quarters in Newberry were also similar—decrepit mobile homes bunched together, the flimsy plywood and jerry-rigged heating devices operated from a tangle of extension cords. The five men in South Carolina were paid meager wages, and they were essentially held against their will by Work Services, Inc. The setup in Newberry, South Carolina, continued even after the extensive news regarding the men at Henry’s Turkey Service had been prominently reported five years earlier. The trial that Canino pursued in Iowa, the depositions and newspaper headlines were all part of the public record, but Work Service, Inc., continued to abuse and neglect its workers with intellectual disabilities. Perhaps that was because no one was ever criminally charged in the Henry’s Turkey Service case; or maybe Paul Byrd, the owner of Work Services, Inc., and a former HTS supervisor, knew that the safeguards inside the disability industrial complex were weak; or maybe, like the citizens of Atalissa, those in Newberry, South Carolina, believed that Byrd was doing the men a great service. In the New York Times piece on the Newberry story, Robert Canino tried to rally everyday citizens to take an interest. “And what we found here serves to remind us all to remain vigilant against such abuse of our neighbors and co-workers.”
Canino and others, many of them the same advocates in favor of abolishing subminimum wages, began to ponder the unthinkable, that Henry’s Turkey Service was not an isolated, decades-long anomaly. “Sadly, the discovery of this situation, answers, in part, the question that has arisen since the disturbing Henry’s Turkey Service operation came to light in Iowa a few years ago,” Canino said. “After seeing how workers with intellectual disabilities had fallen between the societal cracks, being virtually invisible for decades, many have asked, ‘Could there be any other situations like this out there or right in our own backyards?’”13 Unfortunately, the trail of congressional inquiries and testimony over the last six decades seems to run like a fuse from the policy of section 14(c) and the rise of the disability industrial complex to the powder keg of abuses Canino is alerting us to.
The aftermath of Henry’s Turkey Service, spurred on by Curtis Decker’s call to action in “Segregated and Exploited,” set the stage for boycotts, state lawsuits, and a botched legislative solution whose implementation would depend on the Department of Justice’s weakened Civil Rights Division enforcing the Olmstead Supreme Court decision. At the US Department of Labor, the Wage and Hour Division tried to ramp up its oversight of section 14(c). Workers with disabilities across the country hoped for a remedy. The disability industrial complex was increasingly exposed, but it wouldn’t accept the scrutiny with dignity, opting to hunker down; instead of focusing on changes that could help workers with disabilities find parity in wages, it would use scare tactics and rationalizations to protect its billions of dollars a year from impact.