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.

Action Alert: SWOP Pittsburgh to D.A. Zappala

Because we support harm reduction methods proven to reduce the spread of HIV / AIDSabd STIs, DA Zappala incorrectly characterized SWOP as “represent[ing] an industry that is illegal in Pennsylvania.” This is inaccurate for two reasons.

SWOP does not, in any way, encourage illegal activity, nor is SWOP a trade group representing an industry. SWOP is “a national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of people involved in the sex trade and their communities, focusing on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy.”

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NHI: Addressing Prison Violence Against Prostitutes

NO HUMAN INVOLVED is directed and produced by PJ Starr, edited by M.Trevino and PJ Starr, with Contributing Producer M.Trevino. Music for the documentary has been composed by Maxim Moston and audio post-production is by David Wilson.

Partners in organizing: Triple-X Workers’ Solidarity Association of British Columba, Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence, Pivot Legal Society, PACE Society, SWAN Society Vancouver, B.C. Coalition of Experiential Communities, and FIRST: Feminists for the Decriminalization of Sex Work.

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Article of Interest

Condoms and cell phones criminalized in Allegheny County prostitution cases | TribLIVE
A Tribune-Review analysis shows police charged people with both prostitution and possessing an instrument of crime in 100 cases last year in Allegheny County. In 15 of the cases, condoms were an alleged instrument of crime. In 14 others, police seized condoms as evidence.

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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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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!