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:
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.