As Herschel Walker campaigns for the US Senate, he urges society to assist the oppressed in the same way that others assisted him in overcoming mental health issues. This includes people involved in the criminal justice system.

“If someone comes out of prison, they should set up incentives that the person has learned a trade, and you give an incentive for a company to hire him so he can make a living for himself,” Walker said on August 17 in Kennesaw, Georgia.

Walker, while bragging about his own success, added that it is now his “responsibility to help.”

Yet, according to federal court records reviewed by The Associated Press, Walker’s food distributorship has benefited from the unpaid labor of drug offenders routed to a residential rehabilitation program instead of prison, via a firm he touts as a principal partner and supplier.

Lawyers for the program’s participants, an Oklahoma-based organization called “Christian Alcoholics & Addicts In Recovery,” denounced it in court as a “work camp” that exploits a “vulnerable workforce under the guise of… rehabilitation services.”

Walker’s potential financial gains from undervalued labor cannot be quantified. However, connections between his Renaissance Man Food Services, the processing behemoth Simmons Foods Inc, and the CAAIR program provide some contrast to Walker’s campaign pitch.

Walker is attempting to unseat Democrat Sen. Raphael Warnock in one of the nation’s most important midterm elections. Their clash could determine Senate control.

CAAIR began sending residents to work at Simmons Foods Inc. more than a decade ago, a company Walker touts as a principal partner and supplier to his distributorship, Renaissance Man Food Services. Convicted offenders are assigned to CAAIR by state judges, who allow them to choose between the residential program and traditional incarceration. Simmons would hire labor from CAAIR, whose members were not paid.

Such arrangements have been deemed legal by US courts. However, many criminal justice experts are opposed to the free-labor programs.

“Drug courts are typically a pretrial diversion program,” said Jillian Snider, a former New York City police officer who now works as the criminal justice and civil liberties policy director at R Street, a Washington-based center-right think tank.

The ideal, according to Snider, is “almost like an outpatient program,” with professional counseling and skill training, as well as some job responsibilities that include pay. Work-based designs, rather than rehabilitation and skills training, are “unique mostly to Southern states,” according to Snider.

A federal lawsuit against CAAIR and Simmons is still pending, and it alleges that some participants were forced to work when injured, forced to attend religious services, and threatened with imprisonment if their work was unsatisfactory. Participants in court claimed that CAAIR did not always provide necessary rehabilitative or psychiatric treatment, such as Walker has emphasized when sharing his personal story. In court filings, CAAIR described its services as “a combination of work therapy and spiritual and religious counseling.”

Snider explained that “talking to professional counselors” and “being set up with real educational advancement opportunities and skills training” are required for a “full program,” which isn’t possible “if you’re working full-time in a chicken facility,” she said.

Walker and Renaissance Man Food Services were not named as defendants. Inquiries were not returned by a Simmons representative.

Yet, according to Walker, Simmons is an important part of his success. Simmons is the only supplier or partner mentioned by name on the Renaissance website: “RMFS joins with Simmons Foods to bring quality… products to the retail and food service marketplace.” The website lists Siloam Springs, Arkansas, as one of its locations, where Simmons is based. According to Walker’s previous media statements, the relationship began in 2006.

Simmons and CAAIR have defended their practices throughout the litigation. But one thing has never been disputed: the men sent to the chicken factories by CAAIR were not paid.

Wilkerson referred to her “clients” rather than her employees in court filings. Participants signed paperwork stating that CAAIR “did not offer (them) a job” and that they would “not be paid.”

According to the brief, participants worked “to achieve their own rehabilitation, not for the benefit of DARP or any for-profit firm.” Furthermore, the lawyers claimed that unpaid laborers benefit from something other than money: “a sense of self-worth and accomplishment.”