The boys in the bunkhouse Servitude and salvation in the heartland

Dan Barry, 1958-

Book - 2016

A full-length account of the author's prize-winning New York Times story chronicles the exploitation and abuse case of a group of developmentally disabled workers, who for 25 years, were forced to work under harrowing conditions for virtually no wages until tenacious advocates helped them achieve their freedom,"--NoveList.

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Review by New York Times Review

"IF A MAN did something wrong at the plant, he was made to stand in a corner of the gym. Sometimes you'd see two or three of them with noses pressed against the cold wall, mortified," Dan Barry writes in "The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland." Barry's subject is gothic in its horror: the story of several dozen mentally disabled men from Texas, caught up in a wave of deinstitutionalization in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and essentially kidnapped by an entrepreneurial huckster. T. H. Johnson, a hard-drinking, hard-talking rancher, realized he could use these "boys" as cheap labor - since federal labor laws allowed employers to pay subminimum wages to workers with disabilities - all while pretending to be a good Samaritan to men released from the "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"-like conditions of Texas institutions for the "idiotic, imbecilic and feebleminded." Johnson eventually contracted these men out to a turkey-processing plant in rural Iowa. There, for more than 30 years, they lived - and some of them died - in the little town of Atalissa, in a mouse-, mold- and roach-infested abandoned school building. They earned virtually nothing for their work eviscerating turkeys, and were increasingly abused and humiliated if they didn't perform up to speed. They were denied proper medical care for a dizzying array of ailments, and were kept off government assistance. All the while, they were promised a retirement home on Johnson's Texas ranch that, of course, was never built; they were rendered quiescent by Johnson's minions with food, beer and, on occasion, the services of local prostitutes. When that didn't work, they were chained to their beds, or beaten and kicked repeatedly. Bosses shouted profanities at the men, and some of them were forced to carry heavy weights around the school gym as punishment. What makes the story all the more ghastly is that this decades-long saga of abuse occurred in plain sight. For many years, until a new and more brutal group of overseers almost completely isolated them from the surrounding town, the "boys" were a part of the Atalissa community: customers in the local bars, participants in church services, performers in the annual Atalissa Days parade. At times, some residents would even visit them in the boarded-up turquoise building that was their home. Locals knew, yet somehow didn't know, what was going on under their noses. As early as 1974, a young social worker sent a warning to his superiors, accusing Henry's Türkey Service - the company that employed Johnson's "boys" - of running a form of modern slavery. He was ignored by superiors who felt that the schoolhouse wasn't their problem. In 1979, two Des Moines Register journalists wrote of the appalling conditions in which the men lived and worked. Those articles, too, were ignored. Sheriff's deputies, far from investigating the property, simply returned runaways to the home. Federal investigations into the company's labor practices found some wrongdoings, but no one bothered to follow up. Over time, the abandoned schoolhouse, with its many disabled residents, simply became part of Atalissa's background landscape. Barry, a reporter and columnist for The New York Times (where "The Boys in the Bunkhouse" originated), chronicles this scandal from its beginning to its eventual unraveling - through the hard work of a Des Moines Register investigative journalist, several dedicated social workers and a federal labor law attorney - after Johnson died. The last of the men were retired from the turkey plant less than a decade ago. It is a powerful story, weakened only slightly by the author's sometimes clumsy attempts at folksiness. Why didn't the "boys" complain? he asks one of the workers. "?You take it like a man.' That's right, pilgrim. You take it like a man." Yet one can forgive Barry his stylistic shortcomings. As an exposé of a moral catastrophe, this is a vital piece of reportage. It stands alongside Gabriel Thompson's book on the undocumented, "Working in the Shadows," and bears comparison to recent reports on the exploitation of foreign laborers with temporary work visas. "The Boys in the Bunkhouse" stands as a warning that too many people, in too many circumstances, are willing to take advantage of the vulnerable. They will do so simply to make a quick buck, and they will find ways to rationalize the indefensible. A ghastly story of abuse that occurred in plain sight and ended less than a decade ago. SASHA ABRAMSKY is the author; most recently, of "The House of Twenty Thousand Books." His "The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives" was named a New York Times Notable Book in 2013.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 3, 2016]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Throughout the small town of Atalissa, Iowa, they were known as the boys. Originally from Texas, this group of men with intellectual disabilities lived together in a former schoolhouse, from which they were bused to grinding workdays at the turkey plant, from 1974 until 2009. New York Times columnist Barry details the decades these men spent living and working in unimaginably horrid conditions, despite newspaper and government investigations into the arrangement. He dives deep into their lives and the regulations that created this situation, a tangled web of legislation and changing attitudes toward the treatment of those with disabilities. While standards in the wider world for supporting people with intellectual disabilities shifted from institutionalization to inclusion, the situation in Atalissa remained remarkably unchanged. With passion, energy, and understated eloquence, Barry examines how this happened, while sharing the stories of the men and those who cared for them. A resounding investigation of how America treated some of its most vulnerable citizens, shocking in its details, this is a masterful story of long-delayed justice.--Thoreson, Bridget Copyright 2016 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

New York Times columnist Barry (Bottom of the 33rd) weaves a moving tale of how a group of 32 mentally disabled men from Texas were rescued in 2009 after decades of servitude. Through a state program, the men were first put to work in the 1960s at a turkey processing plant in Texas. Then, in 1974, they were moved to another plant in Atalissa, Iowa. There, they lived in an abandoned schoolhouse and eviscerated turkeys in return for room, board, and (low) wages. Over the years, the outside world changed, but theirs did not. They became more isolated from the local community, worked ceaselessly, and were neglected and abused. Only through the efforts of dedicated people, including Iowa state social worker Natalie Neel-McGlaughlin, Des Moines investigative journalist Clark Kauffman, and Texas labor lawyer Robert Canino, were the men eventually able to leave. Their stories, pieced together through extensive research and interviews, are both riveting and often difficult to read, though Barry tries to end on a positive note. Still, his descriptions of overdue reunions and the list recounting "where they are now" is a bleak testament to what happened to 32 men over decades of neglect. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A gripping indictment of society's treatment of "losers." In 1966, a pilot program at the Abilene State School in Texas moved six developmentally disabled men to a ranch run by T.H. Johnson, who agreed to teach the "boys," as he called them, basic agricultural skills. They would be paid a pittance and board at the ranch, saving the state money and providing Johnson with a source of very cheap labor. Award-winning New York Times writer and columnist Barry (Bottom of the 33rd: Hope and Redemption in Baseball's Longest Game, 2012, etc.) rivetingly chronicles the lives of these men and 26 more who worked for the irascible Johnson at his turkey processing plant in Texas and, later, in Atalissa, Iowa. From 1974 until 2009, Johnson's workers, living in filthy, decrepit housing, were paid far below minimum wage, from which room and board were deducted; were denied medical and dental care; and were violently abused by their overseers. Every day, they caught, killed, and gutted turkeys, work, Barry writes, that was "hardand repetitive, a bloody, filthy, feathery mess." Along the way, a social worker discovered the "slave-labor camp" and reported the "human-rights horror" to the Iowa Department of Social Services only to be told that the company's operationa "for-profit business model with a paternalistic overlay of limited freedoms and routine discipline"seemed legitimate. The townspeople of Atalissa liked the "boys," who sometimes came to town, marched in parades, and bought candy with their small allowances, and the men were proud to be workers; they didn't openly complain. But one man's sister, desperate over her brother's plight, caught the attention of a tenacious investigative reporter, whose expos shocked the nation. Finally, social services sprang to action, and the men were extricated, cared for, and embraced by those who had long ignored them. Gently, empathetically, and indelibly, Barry conveys a tale of unthinkable brutality. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.