Combatting Human Trafficking Networks within Prison Walls
By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
For years, John Meekins* heard inmates talk about how they had been prostituted and held captive by pimps. As a corrections officer, he often considered it part of the lifestyle of many drug abusers, but it wasn’t until he attended a conference on human trafficking that he quickly realized many of these inmates were likely victims of human trafficking—and that he had done nothing to stop it.
“What I learned at that conference made me realize we had this problem at the prison where I work,” Meekins said. “Once I began to recognize it, I realized I was dealing with human trafficking in one way or another on a regular basis—probably about one or two times a month.”
Meekins has been a corrections officer in Florida for more than nine years. After learning more about the signs of human trafficking, he started on a personal mission to investigate what was happening within the prison walls.
“Inmates started coming out of the woodwork telling me they had been trafficked and no one knew about it,” he said.
But what he soon discovered went far beyond just a handful of inmates. He found that there was a network of female prisoners actively recruiting other female inmates on behalf of outside pimps.
Pimps Recruiting within Prison Walls
Meekins discovered that pimps use inside recruiters to identify vulnerable women who are getting out of jail soon. After women are recruited, pimps start personal conversations with them (often via mail) offering to take care of them when they are released. The pimps send them money as an act of good faith and then arrange to pick them up.
“The fact is when these women are released from prison after four or five years, they often don’t have job skills or even a stable place to go,” Meekins said. “That makes them vulnerable.”
Pimps often go above and beyond to meet the basic needs of these women: They feed and clothe them and provide them shelter. Pimps often give them their drug fix. In return, the women must pay the pimp back through prostitution. Often they have no option to leave.
“Human trafficking within prison has been happening for a long time, making some of these women slaves on the outside,” said Rob Stallworth, who spent 15 years as a parole officer in Virginia and now works for American Military University. “It’s definitely a trend that some people inside correctional facilities are seeing, but refuse to talk about.”
The Signs of Recruiting Networks
Once Meekins understood that what he was seeing was human trafficking, the signs were very obvious to him. At first, it was eye-opening that much of the communication came right through the prison mailroom. He has now read dozens of letters written by pimps to their recruiters, specifying how many women they must recruit and how much they will be paid for their services. He has also read heart-wrenching letters from former inmates telling their prison friends about what life is like with their pimp.
When Meekins took his evidence to his supervisors, he was told there was nothing to be done: It’s not illegal to send prisoners money and in most cases the system cannot legally control who leaves the prison with whom. “It is frustrating because it’s so obvious what is happening,” he said.
The Challenges of Reporting Human Trafficking
In Meekins’ experience, the formal reporting system within many prisons is not tailored to dealing with issues of trafficking.
“When reporting this crime, the problem is that many law enforcement officers and gang investigators don’t understand it because they don’t speak the language of trafficking and haven’t had the proper training,” he said. “Human trafficking is really different from other crimes we see in the prison system.”
Meekins suggests the most effective way to report information is to call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline (888.373.7888).
Build Better Communication with Law Enforcement
The collaboration with law enforcement remains weak, at best. Corrections officers are often seen as the “mall cops” of the criminal justice system. “Some police officers turn up their nose at corrections people because we don’t have much authority outside of the prison system,” he said.
The reality is that corrections officers often gather intelligence from inmates about everything from gang activity to specific crimes and this information can be very valuable to law enforcement. “Corrections people are able to build a rapport with inmates who will often tell us everything we want to know,” he said. Law enforcement and corrections agencies need to do a better job of collaborating with one another and sharing such information.
Conduct Education and Training Sessions about Human Trafficking
It is critical for correctional facilities to increase the amount of training about the realities of human trafficking within the prison system. Prison authorities must:
- Educate inmates about human trafficking. Meekins suggests looking beyond your organization and encouraging church groups or other non-NGOs to provide awareness training to inmates.
- Train the staff. Supervisors must educate their staff, especially those who screen phone calls and mail, and educate them about the signs of human trafficking. In Meekins’ case, he created posters with information about the indicators of human trafficking.
Meekins continues to spread his message about the prevalence and growth of human trafficking within prisons. He has given numerous presentations about the realities of human trafficking.
*More about John Meekins: Meekins graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and is a member of the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators and the Florida Gang Investigators Association. Meekins has spent nine years working with female inmates in one of the largest female prisons in the nation. The information and perspective he provided in this article are his own opinions and do not reflect those of any department or agency. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.