American Rehab: Reagan with the Snap

Jul 23, 2020

Reveal’s American Rehab series investigates drug rehab facilities that send people to work but don’t pay them. 


In the late 1970s, the drug rehab Cenikor was down and out. Founder Luke Austin had siphoned off almost all the program’s money, and participants were left eating cornmeal mush and green Jell-O to survive. 


Reporters Laura Starecheski and Shoshana Walter explain how Ken Barun, a former rehab participant, brought Cenikor back from the brink, with the help of NFL football pad inventor Byron Donzis.


Cenikor’s rehab workers started manufacturing the football pads, for no pay, and eventually would supply every single team in the NFL. During a 1983 campaign stop, this boot-strapping rehab caught the attention of President Ronald Reagan, who gave Cenikor his blessing. 


And later, when Reagan’s harsh drug enforcement policies filled jails and prisons with people who used drugs, a prison-to-rehab pipeline was born. 


Today, judges across the U.S. order people to attend work-based rehabs like Cenikor, where rehab participants are then put to work without pay. At Cenikor’s facility in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, unpaid workers are shuttled to work at local businesses and national corporations. We track down this shadow workforce.