The Boys in the Bunkhouse

The Boys in the Bunkhouse

Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland

Book - 2016
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Nominated for the 2017 Hillman Prize and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award

With this Dickensian tale from America's heartland, New York Times writer and columnist Dan Barry tells the harrowing yet uplifting story of the exploitation and abuse of a resilient group of men with intellectual disability, and the heroic efforts of those who helped them to find justice and reclaim their lives.

In the tiny Iowa farm town of Atalissa, dozens of men, all with intellectual disability and all from Texas, lived in an old schoolhouse. Before dawn each morning, they were bussed to a nearby processing plant, where they eviscerated turkeys in return for food, lodging, and $65 a month. They lived in near servitude for more than thirty years, enduring increasing neglect, exploitation, and physical and emotional abuse--until state social workers, local journalists, and one tenacious labor lawyer helped these men achieve freedom.

Drawing on exhaustive interviews, Dan Barry dives deeply into the lives of the men, recording their memories of suffering, loneliness and fleeting joy, as well as the undying hope they maintained despite their traumatic circumstances. Barry explores how a small Iowa town remained oblivious to the plight of these men, analyzes the many causes for such profound and chronic negligence, and lays out the impact of the men's dramatic court case, which has spurred advocates--including President Obama--to push for just pay and improved working conditions for people living with disabilities.

A luminous work of social justice, told with compassion and compelling detail, The Boys in the Bunkhouse is more than just inspired storytelling. It is a clarion call for a vigilance that ensures inclusion and dignity for all.

Publisher: New York, NY :, Harper,, [2016]
Edition: First edition
Copyright Date: ©2016
ISBN: 9780062372130
Branch Call Number: 362.3809777 Bar
Characteristics: 340 pages : illustrations


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Aug 15, 2017

Absorbing book. A traffic story with a somewhat satisfying ending. Amazing to think that this travesty took place in a little Iowa town right off I-80. Some good intentions with a lot of missteps and things overlooked. Highly recommend.

Jan 17, 2017

A compelling story about an abusive bunkhouse/group home/indentured slavery situation. What thoroughly presented casework. The town of Atalissa, Iowa (population 311 in 2010) and the names, the details, the history, so impressively researched. The cover claims Dan Barry is the closest thing to a contemporary Steinbeck, however, I cannot confirm this, as I have to read Steinbeck yet. A most perfect companion to reading about Rosemary Kennedy's story last year, as it parallel's much of the lack of dignity and equality in the past treatment of people who have intellectual disabilities.

PimaLib_NormS Nov 17, 2016

“The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland”, by Dan Barry will put your emotions in a blender. The “boys” were a group of 32 intellectually disabled, institutionalized Texas men who were put to work in a turkey processing plant in the 1960s. In the 70s, they were moved to another turkey slaughterhouse in Iowa. They did the worst jobs imaginable, under deplorable working and living conditions, for years and years until the operation was shut down in 2009. 2009! This did not happen 150 years ago, when maybe people did not know any better. That these men had endure this within the last few years is just mindboggling. And yet . . . there are a few positives of this experience to note. The men gradually started to visit the nearby town in Iowa, and as they interacted with the locals, they became accepted members of the community. And, the fact that they were not just dumped in an asylum somewhere, but given real jobs, was certainly a positive. The question that comes to mind is: “Why couldn’t those men have been given real jobs AND been treated like human beings?” The story of these men, as told by Dan Barry, is another reminder that people with mental illness issues can still be contributors to society, and that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, same as everyone else.

Oct 28, 2016

I thought this author was just excellent in his telling of the story. While reading the verdict, I cried along with their attorney. Can't ever remember doing that.
Barb Smith

Oct 02, 2016

Raw and pretty gritty but honest account of the lives of these men and how the system failed them and then ultimately saved them. Just way, way too late. Wow.

Jun 21, 2016

Heartbreaking story. As I read this I had to keep reminding myself that this servitude and exploitation took place in modern day USA and not hundreds of years ago. Another reminder that all of us must take responsibility and speak up for those who may not be able to speak up for themselves.

TSCPL_JulieN Jun 06, 2016

So sad you'll wish you could stop reading, so well-written you won't be able to stop, this expose about a group of intellectually disabled men held in virtual servitude will enrage and move you.


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Jan 17, 2017

(pg.156) "The congregants wept as they sang, so free of pretension was the moment, so powerful. It came to be seen as a lesson in essential truth, taught by men who thought to be less functional than the rest of the congregation, yet in some ways seemed much more grounded. They remembered the important stuff."

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