The Boys in the Bunkhouse

The idea seemed innocent enough.

The Abilene State School in Texas struck a deal in 1966 to send six developmentally disabled men to a turkey-and-sheep ranch in central Texas, where they could live and learn basic agricultural skills.

Touted as “the magic of simplicity,” the program aimed to deinstitutionalize people with physical and mental disabilities by giving them a job and integrating them into society. The ranch got a deal on cheap labor and the state saved money by privatizing their care.

Over the years, more than 1,000 young men apprenticed in the magic of simplicity, including several dozen who were sent to Atalissa, Iowa, in 1974 by Henry’s Turkey Service through an out-of-state contract labor agreement.

Their day-to-day routine, however, was hardly magical.

Hunkered down in a century-old two-story schoolhouse — a “bunkhouse” — on the outskirts of town, they were roused at 3 a.m. every weekday, fed breakfast and taken to a nearby processing plant where they caught, killed and gutted turkeys — usually 20,000 a day.

The men received food and lodging, and a pittance of a wage — the plant was paying Henry’s directly for the labor, and the men were receiving as little as 41 cents an hour. (Henry’s was capitalizing on the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that let certified employers pay subminimum wages to workers with a disability.) Henry’s told the men they would enjoy financial investments and a place to live in Texas when they retired.

In Atalissa, they enjoyed social outings, and the townsfolk even adopted them as their “boys.” But the men had no say about their living conditions or work routines, and most of them had little or no contact with their families.

A social services worker discovered the men’s circumstances later that year and filed a report describing the situation as a “slave-labor camp” and “human-rights horror.” The Iowa Department of Social Services dismissed the report.

Book cover of Dan Barry’s, ‘The Boy’s in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland.’

When reporters from The Des Moines Register wrote about the men in 1979, people were outraged. Investigations were launched, and it seemed like somebody would do something to help them.

But nobody did. And nobody would for the next 30 years.

As the decades passed, the “R-word” took a spot next to the “N-word” in society’s lexicon. The rights of people with developmental disabilities advanced, and a spirit of inclusion emerged.

But society didn’t spend time with the men in Atalissa. They were still hidden away in a bunkhouse, receiving as little as $65 a month in wages. Meanwhile, the turkey plant paid Henry’s more than $500,000 for services rendered in 2007 alone.

By 2009, conditions at the bunkhouse had grown worse.

Sherri Brown had learned her brother, Keith, only had about $88 in savings after decades of working at the turkey plant. Frustrated by a lack of response from several state agencies, she contacted a Des Moines Register reporter, who started making calls of his own.

One call led to another and, eventually, social workers and investigators descended on the bunkhouse.

They were horrified by what they found — filthy mattresses, mice-and-roach-infested squalor and men who had suffered beatings and other physical punishment for rules violations, including being chained to beds. Some had suffered chronic work-related injuries, and most had not received appropriate medical or dental care in years.

The state fire marshal declared the building uninhabitable and the men were evacuated overnight, assisted by a Waterloo nonprofit that supported the men with care, independence and choices in housing, employment and relationships.

Today, the men have moved on from the bunkhouse and the turkey plant. Some stayed in Iowa, others moved back to Texas. But there were no retirement investments or a place to live as they approached their golden years.

Civil suits were filed, and juries rendered verdicts in favor of the men for millions of dollars — the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission won a $240 million settlement for them. But that amount was significantly reduced and it isn’t known if the men — now in their 60s and 70s — will ever see the money.

In 2014, the city of Atalissa demolished the dilapidated schoolhouse, erasing the ever-present reminder of 35 years of cruelty and neglect.

In the end, the idea still seemed innocent enough. But, as Hemingway noted, all things to be truly wicked must start from an innocence.

You can learn more about the men of Atalissa when Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Dan Barry of the New York Times discusses his new book, “The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland” at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, March 30 at the State Historical Museum of Iowa in Des Moines. A reception will precede the program at 5:30.

The event is free and open to the public. Beaverdale Books will have copies of the book available for purchase.

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