Creating Community for Incarcerated Sex Workers

A chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP)

Why is the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Behind Bars?

Since the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) “Behind Bars” inception in May 2016, SWOP Behind Bars (SBB) has sent out over 15000 newsletters to prisoners in 14 states. We have coordinated over 1000 pen pals. We have coordinated more than 7000 books through Amazon Wish Lists, 3000 book donations, and approximately 300 GED self-study guides to prisoners and prison libraries. We have funded 3 college level scholarships and presented at human rights conferences and rallies.  We have provided reentry support for 20 recently released prisoners and are working to write a reentry guide to help incarcerated people transition back to their community and not re-offend. We have fiscally sponsored 4 other like-minded organizations. We have a diverse Board of Directors that includes people who have been and still are incarcerated. We support men, women and trans folks. We are currently working to have to newsletter translated into Spanish.

Why is SWOP Behind Bars? There are more than 200,000 women currently behind bars in the U.S., and that number is on the rise. In fact, women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population in the country. The rate of incarceration for women has been growing nearly twice as fast as that of men since 1985, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and account for about 7% of the total prison population in the U.S.  The fastest growing population behind bars is black women. Prostitution is one of the few crimes where women are arrested more frequently than men, but prostitution alone does not explain the growing numbers of Black, Latino, and trans-women behind bars. If we are going to make reforms to crimes based on morality, we need to consider laws that disproportionately affect women, such as the prohibition of sex work. Sex workers are often subject to the same “revolving door” punitive approach that people convicted of drug offenses receive; women do time, but never receive the resources, social, economic and, psychological support that would enable them to leave the industry if they choose. We don’t often consider that sex work can be an intentional choice. Whether or not it is a symptom of poor economic conditions or volition it is always considered inherently immoral.

In order to address this we need to widen the discussion to include issues that Black, Latino, and trans women are disproportionately affected by.  The illegal purchasing of sex is ultimately what sustains the market and forces sex work underground. The stigma has to be removed around the discussion of sex work in order to protect the human rights and, as recently suggested by Amnesty International (AI), the dignity of the women in it who often need access to housing and, health care. By decriminalizing both the buying and selling of sex we can focus our efforts on those who truly need assistance and making other avenues of employment available, especially for trans women. Laws prohibiting sex work are based on a moral code that doesn’t fully consider the implications. If we are going to reform non-violent crimes like drug use and selling that are founded on societal beliefs, we also need to consider other non-violent crimes, regardless of stigma and moral objections. The question of decriminalization or legalization cannot be limited to marijuana, but needs to be expanded to encompass sex work. We need to rethink the way we currently differentiate and treat between violent and non-violent persons convicted of offenses and push for decriminalization of sex work and the correlation to decreasing crimes against women; these progressive reforms normalize and regulate sex work rather than further stigmatizing and conflating an underground industry with human trafficking. With these efforts we can reduce sexual violence in the US, ameliorate conditions for a marginalized portion of the population, and destigmatize what is a reality for many women.

Article of Interest

Among the developed nations, United States has a very high rate of STD-related epidemics. On October 14, 2007, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger directed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to determine the ‘risk and viability’ of allowing non-profit or health care agencies to distribute sexual barrier protection devices like condoms to inmates in one state prison facility. His argument was that even though sexual activity in prisons is against the law, providing condoms to inmates is “consistent with the need to improve our prison health care system and overall health.”

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Insights Into Action at ICRW

International Center for Research on Women (ICRW): Did you know that over half of U.S. states currently arrest – and even prosecute – sex-trafficked children for prostitution? An increasing number of states are passing legislation preventing this from happening for everyone under the age of 18, but it is a lengthy process and can be a real uphill battle. Given the challenges, what can be done?

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The Voice Of Alaska: Tara Burns On FOSTA / SESTA

The Deadly Consequences of the Anti-Sex Trafficking Law By Tara Burns | June 4, 2018 Photo by Blemished Paradise via Flickr What if I told you that scientists found something that decreases the female homicide rate by 17.4 percent and our government just abolished it?...

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PA Sen Bob Casey Responds

The United States, by far, has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Although we have just five percent of the world’s population, our country now houses twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. More than 2.2 million Americans are currently in prison, and another 4.6 million remain on probation or parole. Our prison population has skyrocketed over the past two decades as we have incarcerated more non-violent, low-level drug offenders. The mass incarceration of illegal drug users, disproportionately from minority communities, has not curtailed drug usage. The multi-billion dollar illegal drug industry remains intact, with more dangerous drugs continuing to reach our streets. The unnecessary and ineffective mass incarceration of non-violent offenders is not only a human injustice, but also an economic drag. It is time we rebalance our investments in the criminal justice system.

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Volunteering for the SWOP Community Support Line

Alan Hamm, M. Div., has spent the past decade or so as a chaplain and crisis counselor.  He has worked as a counselor at a hospital trauma center and a domestic violence/sexual assault crisis center.  He can be reached at Q: Why did you begin...

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Send A Newsletter Inside!

SWOP Behind Bars mailed its first newsletter to incarcerated women from 7 states in the United States. The names were submitted anonymously and we appreciate the support from the sex worker community as well as all the writers and journalists and academics that live among us and who have pledged support and offered further assistance!