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If you came upon a rundown, roach-infested bunkhouse in the heartland of America, full of middle-aged and elderly men in poor health who worked all day at a job for little pay and had been for decades, you might think you had time traveled back to the 19th century. We talk to an author who writes about this very situation where mentally challenged men had been pressed into servitude in 1974 and remained there until 2009 when some determined and caring social workers stepped in to help them.

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  • Dan Barry, New York Times reporter and columnist, author of The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and salvation in the heartland

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The Boys in the Bunkhouse

Gary Price: Imagine a ramshackled old schoolhouse, lined with broken down bunks, paint peeling off the walls and ceiling, darkened by boarded up windows and crawling with cockroaches and other vermin. Now imagine that living in that squalor were 32 grown men – some of them elderly – all of them mentally challenged in some way, and all of them working day after day, for almost 35 years at one of the dirtiest jobs there is – slaughtering poultry. It sounds like a scene from a Civil War-era movie or a Dickens novel but, unfortunately, it’s a real-life situation uncovered in 2009 in rural Iowa. New York Times reporter and columnist Dan Barry writes about these men in his new book, The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and salvation in the heartland. Barry writes stories about all 50 states, and he hadn’t been in Iowa for a while, so he looked up some old news stories from the state.

Dan Barry: There was a very small news item about a lawsuit that had just been decided involving the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. They had brought a lawsuit on behalf of 32 men with intellectual disability who had been working at a turkey processing plant in rural Iowa, and they had been making $65 a month plus room and board for 35 years. In other words, their pay had remained the same from 1974 to 2009. And this news article went on to say that they had been rescued and that the EEOC had championed their cause and there was a landmark verdict in the favor of the men. So, I saw that article, and it was a very small news item, and it blew the top of my head off. I couldn’t get my brain around men with intellectual disability living in an old schoolhouse, working at a turkey plant and being exploited financially, emotionally and physically.

Price: The schoolhouse and the turkey plant where the men worked was in Atalissa, Iowa, a tiny town in Muscatine County, but the story doesn’t start there. Barry says it begins in Texas in the 1950s when people with intellectual disabilities weren’t thought to be able to live alongside the rest of us.

Barry: People with intellectual disability were segregated, they were condescended to, they were separated from us, they were called names. Even the medical terms were harsh and condescending and separating, you know: imbecile, idiot, moron – and then when I was growing up it was retarded. All of these are harsh, inadequate terms and that’s how these men were perceived as they were young boys growing up in families that often times didn’t have the financial or emotional wherewithal to take care of their needs. So, when they were twelve or thirteen, they were brought to an institution in Texas. In Texas, the institutions are called “state schools,” and it’s a form of institutionalization, so that further segregated people with disability from the so-called “non-disabled world”, and that’s how they spent their formative years – in these institutions.

Price: During the 1960s and 70s, Barry says the state of Texas wanted to free up beds in the state schools and there was a movement to return intellectually challenged individuals into the community. A man named T.H. Johnson stepped in and offered to house and employ a number of the boys on his ranch.

Barry: And this way they would become fine, upstanding citizens of the community as it was perceived. Most importantly, that they would become taxpaying members of the community – that they would be paying for their care. In addition, that they would find self-worth and they would have dignity and they would learn to take care of themselves. That was the idea. So, this program began and after the first year or two, T.H. Johnson was celebrated as a progressive because he was helping to integrate people with disability into the community, but the problem was that it was exploited to that it’s root; the men were learning a skill, but the skill was simply to catch turkeys. That’s a lousy job. Turkeys don’t like to be caught, they don’t like to be touched, and so these men with intellectual disability would run around pens trying to catch the toms and trying to catch the hens as part of a process of artificial insemination.

Price: The men became so good at catching turkeys that Johnson and his partners decided to create groups of men that they could subcontract to various poultry plants around the country. In 1974, one group ended up in Atalissa, at a converted schoolhouse that had been made into a dormitory with freshly painted walls, a recreation area and a life that gave the men the freedom to attend church and buy what they needed in town. However, things were not as rosy as they seemed.

Barry: They were not being paid the same as their non-disabled colleagues. So if Pat is non-disabled and she’s working on the assembly line eviscerating turkeys, she would be considered working at 100% capacity, but Dan, who had intellectual disability, would be said to be able to only do 65% of what Pat would do, so then Dan would get paid 65% of whatever Pat’s pay was. But the problem with that arrangement was that it was so ripe for exploitation and abuse, that the men were never even paid that much. In addition, they were as good as Pat was in doing that job. They were very, very proficient at the jobs that they had at that plant, yet they were taken advantage of financially.

Price: In his book, Barry profiles a number of the men at the turkey plant — men who proved over and over again that an intellectual disability didn’t necessarily hold you back.

Barry: One is Willy Levi; he was from Orange, Texas, very musically-gifted, very engaging guy, and he sang in the choir at the local Lutheran church, and he was especially gifted at being able to talk turkey. He could communicate with the turkeys, and so his job was to get them out of the crates and calm them down, and he would say, “Okay, Tom. Okay, Tom,” and he would stroke their chest and calm them down and then he would turn them upside down and hang them on these shackles that would swing into the plant. And so he had a great compassion for these poor animals as they were going off to their slaughter. Gene Berg was a really well-spoken guy, very handsome guy, who used to ride around the bunkhouse property on a little John Deere gator, and he was always dependable – very, very dependable at work.

Price: Although the men were housed, fed and paid – though poorly – they were also humiliated and treated like children.

Barry: I’ll tell you one story about a guy named Alfred Busby, a very loveable guy, very proud guy, but one day at the plant, he did something wrong, so they came home from the plant in the evening and he had to be disciplined; that’s what the supervisor said. And so what they did was they said, Alfred, no television, you’re not allowed to watch television, and you have to go right to your room after dinner. Now, this sounds like we’re talking about a ten-year-old boy, but Alfred Busby was almost 40 years old, so it’s an example of how the men were being treated as children. You would never say to a 40-year-old man, you have to go to your room and you can’t watch television, but they did that to Alfred Busby, and he was so mortified that in the morning he ran away. The problem is that it was January in Iowa, and he ran away early in the morning and it was zero degrees out, and he disappeared. Four months later, in the spring thaw, they found his body in a field nearby.

Price: Over the years the schoolhouse fell into disrepair, the men’s pay never went up no matter how hard they worked and the men were pretty much destined to spend the rest of their lives in servitude at the turkey plant. Barry says that a young social worker, Ed George, sent a memo about the men’s pay arrangement to his boss, but it was ignored. The Des Moines Register did a story on the men, but nothing was done.

Barry: All through the years, every once in awhile, the Department of Labor would stop in and see that the company was abusing the men financially, that they weren’t paying them properly, so they would find the company and make the company promise to pay the men back the money they were owed. Of course, the company controlled the men’s bank accounts, so the money was just simply recycled back into the company. Meanwhile, the government didn’t know what to make of this arrangement. It wasn’t really a sheltered workshop, it wasn’t really a group home, so it kind of fell between the cracks of regulation and the thing just continued on and on and got worse and worse.

Price: Even though the windows on the schoolhouse eventually were boarded up, and the inside was filthy and crawling with vermin, Barry says the townspeople never suspected anything was wrong. As long as the landscaping around the building was kept up and the men weren’t complaining, why would they? It wasn’t until the turkey plant was winding down operations and the men were to be sent home that anyone noticed their plight. A relative of one of the men called the company and asked how he had in the bank. The answer was only 86-dollars.

Barry: She went ballistic and she called all the agencies in Iowa that she could think of. She also called a local reporter at the Des Moines register, and that led to a social worker named Natalie Neel-McLaughlin to go to the house. She knocks on the door and she gains entrance and she cannot believe the squalor that she has just found herself in and she cannot believe the conditions of the men.

Price: Barry says that the men’s hands were constricted from the work they did; their teeth were rotting and many had foot problems from standing at the plant all day. The fire marshal came and shut down the schoolhouse declaring it a firetrap. Social workers evaluated the men’s conditions and eventually found them housing in Waterloo, where they lived on their own. The EEOC brought the men’s case to federal court, and a jury awarded each man 7.5 million dollars for their 35 years of servitude at the turkey plant. It was a great gesture, but none of them ever saw that amount.

Barry: But that was very quickly knocked down because of caps and jury awards for small businesses, so the men were each going to get maybe $50,000 after it was all said and done. It took years and years for the men to get any money. It was only within the last month – I’m not making this up – within May or June, that the men realized any money. And I think the initial group of men were 32; four of them have since died. So these men are rescued and then, almost very soon after, die, so their experiences of liberty last very briefly. So the other 28 men are going to receive maybe 20 to 25 thousand dollars each, which may sound like a lot to some people, but if you consider that this is money owed to them over 35 years, including the exploitation they suffered and the abuse they suffered, it’s hardly payment enough.

Price: Barry says that although the boys in the bunkhouse have been freed from their years of servitude, that doesn’t mean no one else is being exploited in this country. Shortly after the resolution of this case, Barry heard from social workers that a similar situation was found in Newberry, South Carolina at another turkey processing plant. He says that the message he wants to communicate to readers is to keep your eyes open, because the vulnerable are easy targets.

Barry: The story, to me, signals how we have to remain vigilant for those who are vulnerable in our community. We have to remain vigilant, that’s one; and two: the story speaks to the continuing otherness that exists between the non-disabled world and the world of people with disability. And that otherness, that segregation that still exists, though it’s much better than it was even ten years ago, really has to continue to be addressed.

Price: You can read about the intellectually disabled men and how they lived through the 35 years of exploitation and the people who came to their rescue in Dan Barry’s book, The Boys in the Bunkhouse, available now. You can also read more about him on his website, Dan Barry online.com and on The New York Times website. For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.