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Horror House on the Prairie: Hard Labor and Harsh Treatment for Group of Disabled Men in Iowa

Over the years, their hands began to curl. Their fingers formed into hooks from decades spent using them to rip the innards from turkeys in a remote processing plant in rural Iowa. They feared their overseers: disobedience could spell the denial of basic privileges, like access to the radio or television; worse, they might be forced to endure hours spent standing in a corner, staring at a wall, alone and scared. One of the men fled, only to be discovered months later, his remains decaying in the newly thawed Iowa snow.

These are some of the stories of the 32 intellectually disabled men in “The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland,” a new book by New York Times reporter Dan Barry. Barry began writing about the experience of the men for the Times in 2014. Referred to as the "boys" by their abusive employers, the men were ostensibly brought to Iowa to be cared for by professionals and schooled in a basic trade. Their reality became something far different. They were held against their will in a decrepit schoolhouse and forced to work in bleak, arduous conditions at a turkey processing plant for a paltry $65 dollars a month. It took 35 years before state authorities rescued the men in 2009. Barry joined our podcast to describe how he was alerted to the story and how he achieved a few of his breakthroughs.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Can you talk about the first moment that you heard of the ranch in Iowa and what you found intriguing about it?

Barry: I write the "This Land" column for the Times, and I basically wander around the country. I've been to all 50 states, and what I'll do sometimes is say, "Hey, I haven't been to Iowa lately." As we all do. I'll visit Iowa virtually and read some websites and newspaper articles and such. I came across, really, about a 100-word news brief, and it was clearly a distillation of maybe an AP story that was a distillation of a Des Moines Register story. It contained a series of phrases that just blew my mind. A $240 million verdict involving a group of 32 men with intellectual disability living in an old schoolhouse for 35 years. Working at a turkey processing plant for 35 years. Doing the worst jobs in those plants, by the way, and being paid $65 a month plus room and board and in kind services, which meant camping trips occasionally or going to Wal-Mart, for 35 years. In other words, they were paid $65 a month in 1974, and in 2009 they were still being paid $65 a month. Those series of phrases took my breath away.

Talk about speaking to some of these men for the first time. Many of them can't communicate very well. You spent, I'd imagine, dozens of hours with them. What was it like to gain their trust and surmount, if you will, that barrier of communication?

Barry: There were 32 men that were part of this lawsuit. They were, effectively, the last guys in the bunkhouse when the gig was up, effectively. They're 32 personalities and 32 individual experiences. We tend to lump them together, but each guy had his own journey, his own story. Each man had a different level of intellectual ability. Some guys could not tell you what had happened to them. They didn't have the verbal skills. A couple of guys were deaf. Some guys could flat out tell you exactly what happened to them and reflect a little bit on it. The one issue that they all seem to share, however, was a difficulty with the time continuum. If I said to Willie Levi, "Hey, Levi, when did you come to the bunkhouse here in Atalissa?" He might say, "It was last year," when in fact it was 35 years ago and not last year.

The stories that they tell are true, and I would corroborate it, not only with talking to other men, and talking to people who worked with them. Non-disabled people who worked with them and knew them from town, and then I came across a lot of documentation. There was all sorts of triangulation occurring to corroborate the stories that these men were telling.

The first time I went to Iowa I didn't bring a notebook, I didn't take my notebook out. It was really to say, "Hey, I'm Dan, I just want to get to know you guys and, you know, tell me your story." The first visit or two really was just having coffee with them and listening to them and watching them go fishing one day. Having them get used to me and then, "Hey, Levi, you mind if I talk to you for a minute?" He would tell me his story.

There must have been people who really helped lead you to some breakthroughs. Is there anything that stands out? Any particular person who you found was an essential guide through all of this?

Barry: All the social workers who took care of these men, once they were rescued, really were very, very helpful. I think that everyone felt there was a chance here to tell the men's stories. To give voice to the voiceless. They had gone through so much, and now this was their moment to have their story told. I had a lot of help that way. There were certain gaps in the narrative that bothered me along the way because the men kept referring to one man in particular, one of the men who lived in the bunkhouse. His name was Alfred Busby. They said, "Yeah, Alfred Busby, he left the bunkhouse, and he died. He died." I didn't know what that meant. I tried to sort it out looking through records and I couldn't find anything, I couldn't find any photographs of him or anything like that. I knew that when these men say something happened, it happened. It may have happened in 1986 or it may have happened last year but it happened.

I was down in South Carolina for a story related to this, and I tracked down a woman who had worked, as a young woman, at the bunkhouse as kind of a second or third in command. She's a wonderful woman, big-hearted woman, yet she's also an example at that time of being wholly unprepared to deal with 36, 40, 50 men with intellectual disabilities. She's 22, 23 years old; she hasn't gone to school for special education or anything like that. She just got this job; now she's in charge of helping to supervise them.

I tracked her down, and I'm saying, "Oh, then you must know Henry Wilkins, and you must Levi." "Oh, how's Levi?" I said, "Yeah, and I'm trying to figure out a story about a guy named Alfred Busby." We were sitting in a McDonald’s in Newberry, South Carolina, drinking coffee. The TV is blaring above us, and she looked at me and she said, "Well, you know, I'm involved in that story." I didn't know what she meant. She said, "I'm involved with how he died." It blew me away. All of a sudden, all the noise in the McDonald’s goes away, and I'm locked in. "Okay, Teri." Her name was Teri Senn. "Teri, tell me what happened."

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more read, Dan Barry’s original story in the Times or buy the book.

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