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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.

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’

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.

Goodbye, 2015—Hello, 2016

ThankYouHeart

Amy K. feels the same way we do.

Last year we mailed 3,086 packages of books—9,200 or so books in all—and 361 blank journals. That’s 19% more than in 2014! We reached nearly 2,500 individual women in 53 prisons, including the largest women’s prison in the country and several men’s prisons where transwomen are incarcerated.

We’re impressed ourselves. But we want to share the credit.

As always, our 100% volunteer team works constantly to seek new resources and improve our processes so we can do more.

This year, for example, we received a Crossroads Fund Seed Fund grant. We implemented a database to track mailings, collect data and better manage our backlog. And we took an important step in obtaining our 501(c)(3) IRS determination as a public charity.

But we couldn’t have done any of this without friends who helped in many ways, including:

  • Donating money for postage and rent (postage is about 82% of our total budget and rising as we aim to serve even more women)
  • Mailing or dropping off books and blank journals
  • Purchasing special requests from our Amazon Wish List
  • Attending one of our three community events

    CrystalColette

    Crystal Laura, author of Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, at Women & Children First in March; Colette Payne of CLAIM (Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers) at After-Words Books in September.

And we’re grateful for our community, including everyone who follows us on:

  • Facebook (50% more followers than last year)
  • Twitter (65% more followers)
  • Our blog (subscribe at the top right) and website (88% more visitors)

Please keep up with us in 2016 as we provide more women with the self-empowerment, education and entertainment that reading provides. People in prison  have little or no access to books. So as long as there is the need, we’re committed to providing the pleasure and power of books.

CBWP Visits a Class on OITNB

searchEarly this month we were invited to North Central College to visit the class Orange is the New Black: The Sociopolitical Realities of Women’s Incarceration Experiences. Taught by Dr. Stephen Maynard Caliendo and Dr. Jennifer Keys, and grounded in a wide range of research on incarceration, this unique course explores a number of complex themes that have come up in the show. In particular, it “critically examines the inner workings of the prison industrial complex and the ways in which it controls and regulates inmates’ daily lives.”

An issue that affects incarcerated women every day is the freedom to read. Or lack thereof. One of our volunteers discussed with the class how we help meet the need and desire for books of all kinds (as well as blank journals) when there is little or no access to a variety of current reading material. It was a pleasure to share our work—including what women tell us about the importance of books, the most popular genres and other insights about what matters to the women we serve, and the challenges we face—with this thoughtful, engaged group.

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Chicago friends: Would your class, church or community organization like a guest speaker from Chicago Books to Women in Prison? Just write us at chicagobwp@gmail.com.

New Volunteers: Next Orientation is Sunday, October 25

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Jess in Ohio made us smile with her recent order. And you can brighten the lives of the women who receive the thousands of books and blank journals we send each year. Join us for our next new volunteer orientation—led by one of our experienced volunteers—Sunday, October 25, 1–2 p.m., right before our regular 2–5 p.m. work session. Get the details here.

This Sunday already booked? Plan now to join us for the Sunday, November 29 orientation. Or learn how you can get involved in other ways. You know where to find us!

Support the Prison Yoga Project

pyp-logoWe receive many requests for yoga books from the women we serve, and one of the best we’ve seen is Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery, published by the Prison Yoga Project. We’re grateful for the free books they’ve sent us.

The Prison Yoga Project also conducts classes and instructor training in prisons across the country. One incarcerated person said, “With the barrage of negativity in prisons, they are unyielding breeding grounds for intense suffering, chaos, noise, overcrowding, violence, ineffective medical care and poor food. But occasionally, every so often, friendship, kindness, compassion and programs of meaningful substance come along. The Yoga program is a life-sustaining and meaningful one that I nurture and value because it is not only positive, it supports my growth and success.”

Help the Prison Yoga Project continue and do even more. They have 20 days remaining in their ambitious Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. The Indiegogo campaign is over, but you can still help. Please support them as you are able.

New Volunteers: Next Orientation is Sunday, September 27

Kylie in Indiana heard about us from a friend and sent us this wonderful note along with her first order for books:

Thank You drawing

Come help make a difference with us—one package of books at a time. Join us for our next new volunteer orientation, led by one of our experienced volunteers, Sunday, September 27, 1–2 p.m., right before our regular 2–5 p.m. work session. Get the details here.

Can’t make it this Sunday? Plan now to join us for the Sunday, October 25 orientation. Or learn how you can get involved in other ways. See you soon!

Up in Here book discussion—Fri., June 5 at City Lit Books

Join us at City Lit Books in welcoming Mark Dostert to discuss his debut memoir, Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side, which chronicles his experiences as a counselor at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, Chicago’s infamous 500-cell juvenile jail, known as the Audy Home.

Mark will be in conversation with Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America. We’re looking forward to a provocative dialogue. Don’t miss it!

Friday, June 5, 6:30 p.m.
CityLit Books
2523 N. Kedzie Ave., Chicago

UpInHere     ThereAreNoChildrenHere

Learn more on the City Lit event page.

New Volunteers: Next Orientation is Sunday, May 3

Exciting things are happening at Chicago Books to Women in Prison and we’d love for you to be a part of it all.

Join us for our next orientation session, led by one of our experienced volunteers—Sunday, May 3, 1–2 p.m., right before our regular 2–5 p.m. work session. Get the details here. (Note that this is a week later than our usual last-Sunday-of-the-month schedule.)

Learn how you can make a personal, powerful difference in the lives of Rebecca H. and other incarcerated women.

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