Human Trafficking in Women’s Prisons

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UPDATE: Since posting the article below, we’ve learned of a bust of three human traffickers who preyed on women at Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida. It’s the largest women’s prison in the United States and we send books to hundreds of women there every year. Here are two news stories on this human-trafficking operation, which underscore the reality of the problem:

Sex slavers arrested in Orlando for trafficking women from prison, MBI says
Orlando police: Men used newly released LCI prisoners as prostitutes

Guest post by John Meekins*

I had been a corrections officer for several years at one of the largest female prisons in the United States when in 2012 I attended a two-day conference on human trafficking. That was where I realized that human trafficking is a real issue for the inmates at the prison where I work.

The U.S. Government defines human trafficking as:

  • Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.
  • The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

When I returned to work after the conference, I told the inmates about it and also that I was interested in learning about their experiences with human trafficking. It’s been amazing to me how many inmates over the last four-and-a-half years have come to me to talk about having been trafficked for sex by pimps. What is even more amazing is the number of women who have been arrested numerous times, and served time in jail and prison, as a result of things they did while being trafficked.

Why female inmates are vulnerable to sex traffickers
First, a woman who is in prison for too many petty theft or DUI convictions is exposed to other women who have been in the sex industry for years. Some of those women recruit other women with whom they’re incarcerated on behalf of pimps on the outside—especially women who seem to have little support on the outside. The pimps can easily look up the potential recruit on the department of corrections public online database and, in most states, see her picture and description, such as age, weight and height. In many states, the release date and release address is also included.

Once introductions are made the trafficker adds money to the recruit’s account, which she can spend on things like chips and soups at the prison store, until she is released. This weekly stipend of $15–20 usually creates an obligation for the victim to go home with the trafficker upon her release.

There’s another major risk factor for a woman being trafficked when she is released from prison: Often she is in prison for things she did while she was being trafficked and about which she never came forward. Most of the time her trafficker keeps an eye on the department of corrections website and he will know when she gets out and her release address. So, once she is released, many times traffickers are waiting right in the parking lot to take women away with them.

Challenges in fighting human trafficking
What is worse is that I have been unable to assist some of the victims who have come forward. A while back a friend of mine in law enforcement said a prosecutor was complaining to him that they aren’t getting enough sex trafficking cases in their jurisdiction. I told him to have the prosecutor call me. I told the prosecutor that I know many victims who would make terrific witnesses and help take down big trafficking rings in our state. I also said the problem is that the law enforcement community does their job, the prosecutors do their job—but they can’t expect a victim to testify against a trafficker and put herself at risk if the woman is not going to receive services such as housing and protection once she is released from prison.

In addition, corrections officers are not trained to recognize the signs and indicators of human trafficking. Too many times when someone books a sex trafficking victim into a county jail the only comment is, “just another drug-addicted dancer.”

Getting the word out to incarcerated women
Chicago Books to Women in Prison and I have been attempting to better educate the female populations they serve by offering books about sex trafficking by survivors such as Holly Austin Smith, author of Walking Prey, and Katarina Rosenblatt, author of Stolen. There are a number of good books out there that would make a big difference in the lives of women in correctional facilities around the country. See the group’s Amazon wish list for a few suggestions. Also check out the American Bar Association’s Survivor Reentry Project, which can help survivors get convictions vacated that are related to their victimization.

The women in these facilities can do their jobs as far as reporting traffickers and assisting with prosecuting the pimps. The people who operate safe houses and provide drug and addiction counseling services need to step up and assist in this important fight.

*John Meekins has more than a decade of experience working at one of the largest women’s prisons in the United States. He speaks about the issue of human trafficking in jails and prisons to a wide variety of groups, including law enforcement, corrections, and other professionals. He has a degree in business from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is a member of the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators, and is an Ambassador of Hope for Shared Hope International. John has written other articles about the issue. Learn more at his website.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

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Another way of looking at it: In 2016 we mailed about this many books each and every month.

Last year we mailed 3,901 packages of books and blank journals to women in prison around the country—9,700 or so books in all and 591 blank journals. That’s 13% more than in 2016.

On top of that, our 100% volunteer team worked hard to improve our processes, as well as educate others about the need we help to fill. Last year we:

  • Planned and conducted focus groups with women at Logan Correctional Center and Cook County Jail, thanks to funding by the Illinois Humanities Council and Crossroads Fund. We’re compiling and analyzing our findings now, so watch for our report early this year.
  • Added a quality control step to our process—ensuring that every book selected is the best match possible for a specific woman’s request.
  • Hosted the Chicago premiere of First Degree, a new documentary on prison education. Look for it on PBS this year.

But we couldn’t have done any of this without friends who helped in these and many other ways:

We appreciate everyone who joined us at any of our several community events, including:

  • The reading and discussion with Maya Schenwar and Crystal Laura at Evanston Public Library, in collaboration with CLAIM/Cabrini Green Legal Aid
  • Poetry from the Inside, a poetry reading—featuring poetry by nine of the women we serve—in collaboration with the Poetry Center of Chicago and Free Write Arts & Literacy
  • Tabling at Chicago Zine Fest, Printers Row Lit Fest and Ravenswood ArtWalk
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Maya Schenwar, author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, and Crystal Laura, author of Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, at Evanston Public Library in March.

And we’re grateful to everyone who attended one of our fundraising events:

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Thanks once again, Eats & Sweets and The Annoyance—and the talented performers at each event—for your generosity!

Finally, we really appreciate our online community, including everyone who follows us on Facebook (30% more followers than last year) and Twitter (53% more followers). We’ve connected with so many terrific people and organizations this way.

Please keep up with us as we aim to do even more in 2017. People in prison  have little or no access to books, and as long as there’s the need, we’re committed to providing the pleasure and power of books.

#GivingTuesday Isn’t Over

Today is #GivingTuesday and we’ve been promoting the purchase of the new 2017 GED review book. Whether you’re reading this at the end of the day or you’ve come across our page some time later, you can be sure that we can always need more GED review books.

Women tell us often how important it is that we’re able to provide this book. Many prisons offer classes or testing, but they don’t provide books—and not everyone even gets into a class. See what a few women told us:

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Continue reading ‘#GivingTuesday Isn’t Over’

Chicago Premiere of a New Documentary—Sat., October 22

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Saturday, October 22, 2–4 pm
Frederick A. Douglass Branch Library
3353 W. 13th St., Chicago (map)

The expression “sent up the river” was coined by individuals who were sent up the Hudson River to do their time at the infamous Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. FIRST DEGREE finds hope in this seemingly hopeless place by exploring an unusual prison education program that appears to keep Sing Sing inmates from being sent back up the river after their release. Nationwide, over half of released inmates return to prison within five years, but for the past 14 years, less than 1% of the inmates who earned their college degrees at Sing Sing returned to prison. Continue reading ‘Chicago Premiere of a New Documentary—Sat., October 22’

Poetry from the Inside—Weds., September 28

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Join us with the Poetry Center of Chicago and Free Write Jail Arts & Literacy for:

Poetry from the Inside:
A Collaborative Reading and Book Drive

Wednesday, September 28, 7–9 pm
Chicago Art Department
1932 S Halsted St., Suite 100 (map)

There will be a reading from several of Free Write’s former students who were previously incarcerated in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

The incarcerated women we serve send us many poems, and we’re delighted that acclaimed poets Hannah Gamble and Erika L. Sánchez will read a few this evening: Continue reading ‘Poetry from the Inside—Weds., September 28’

Now a Member of the Chicago Literacy Alliance

CLAWe’ve joined the Chicago Literacy Alliance, an association of more than 90 organizations helping to meet literacy needs for people of all ages and backgrounds.

At Chicago Books to Women in Prison, literacy is the core of what we do. For starters, only about 40% of people in prison have a high school diploma, so the books we send are critical in improving this vital skill. In addition, many women tell us that they hadn’t cared much about reading before prison, but now love it. Many mothers tell us that now they encourage their children to read.

The women we serve also tell us that the books we send enable them to earn a GED or reach another educational goal, improve parenting skills, enhance self-esteem, learn new skills, discover new talents and more—including simply to escape for a while from their oppressive environment. Through books we help incarcerated women improve the quality of their lives, understand their rights and enhance the everyday culture of their institutions. Importantly, it also helps them improve their chances for a successful life after leaving prison.

As part of the Chicago Literacy Alliance, we’re looking forward to opportunities to:
  • Educate other member organizations—including but not limited to those that work with incarcerated people—about the need for our work and the difference we make
  • Network with members to share ideas about outreach, capacity-building, fundraising and other common concerns
  • Collaborate on public activities with member organizations on issues and themes that connect us

We’re delighted to be a member! Learn more about the Chicago Literacy Alliance.

Laughs Unlocked benefit show—Tues., April 5

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Prison is no laughing matter—but we’ll make an exception this time because some of the best improvisors in Chicago are throwing us a benefit!

In this two-act show they’ll create scenes based on stories from Dionna Griffin-Irons. Griffin-Irons, who was formerly incarcerated, is a writer, alumna of Second City, and current Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the legendary comedy theatre. Continue reading ‘Laughs Unlocked benefit show—Tues., April 5’

Book Event with Maya Schenwar & Crystal Laura—Mon., March 7 in Evanston

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We’re proud to co-sponsor this event with Cabrini Green Legal Aid—in particular our friends at CLAIM, a program of CGLA.

Come join authors Maya Schenwar and Crystal T. Laura as they explore the impact of prison on their families and advocate for sweeping change to the criminal justice system. Schenwar will share her recent book Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, and Laura will discuss her book Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Continue reading ‘Book Event with Maya Schenwar & Crystal Laura—Mon., March 7 in Evanston’

Gift from the DaVita Way of Giving

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Left to right: Carmen Berry, Facility Administrator; Bonnie Plude, Dietitian; Valerie Cox, Administrative Assistant; Vicki White and Betsy Nore, CBWP; Tanya DePeiza, Social Worker; and Aona Anderson, RN

Recently we were honored with a gift of $1,000 from the DaVita Dialysis Center in Country Club Hills, Illinois. DaVita Healthcare Partners, Inc. is a leading provider of kidney care services. Through the annual DaVita Way of Giving, DaVita clinical facilities across the country are empowered to choose non-profit organizations in their communities to receive charitable contributions.

We receive hundreds of letters each month from incarcerated women requesting books and blank journals. As word spreads and the need continues to grow, the volume of letters increases too. This generous donation will let us mail hundreds of more packages of books and blank journals more quickly.

Thank you to everyone at DaVita on behalf of the women we serve.

Join Us for a Benefit Dinner—Tuesday, January 19

EatsSweetslogoUpdated January 15: SOLD OUT!

Our friends at Eats & Sweets Cafe are celebrating Dolly Parton’s 70th birthday with a fundraiser for us. Dolly is well known for her literacy program Imagination Library, and Eats & Sweets owners Tim and Margaret wanted to support an organization that works to improve literacy. We’re delighted to be honored in this way—all the more as Eats & Sweets is right in the neighborhood and their food is delicious.

There will also be a book drive the week before, as well as a photo booth and raffle at the dinner. Reservations are required and costumes are optional. Learn more and make your reservation today. We look forward to seeing you there! Continue reading ‘Join Us for a Benefit Dinner—Tuesday, January 19’


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