The Prison Pipeline: Helping Trafficking Victims Requires Officer Training, Legal Support
By Larson Binzer
Correctional departments in central Florida have plenty of company in their need for training. An informal survey of 41 state correctional departments found that 27 of them have no mandatory training on human trafficking issues. If a corrections officer wants to receive training on the matter, he or she must actively seek it out. Anything more than a two-hour online course will likely involve time off work and travel expenses that won’t be compensated.
The Need to Train More Officers
Anti-trafficking nonprofit organizations such as Safe Horizon, GEMS, and Polaris Project have taken on some of the burden of training corrections officers. Many officers are simply unaware of the ongoing activities of jailhouse recruiters, inmates who recruit other inmates into trafficking rings. Anti-trafficking organizations believe the education of prison officials will enable the identification of more victims and ultimately decrease the number of jailhouse recruiters.
Although these organizations have limited resources and a comprehensive training program is beyond their capacity, they aim to reach as many officers as possible. “We do what we can to train officers in the correctional system,” said Lindsey Speed, a staff member at Traffick 911, a Dallas-based nonprofit organization. “We will go to the location and offer a two-hour introductory course if they ask us to.”
Such training is typically based on a presentation, which often includes the definition of trafficking, available statistics, signs of exploitation, and how to recognize and converse with potential victims. Attendees might learn about tattoos that pimps use to “brand” and identify their victims to other traffickers, or how to recognize signs of abuse, such as a woman’s discomfort in making direct eye contact.
Although these sessions can be a great training tool, they do come with drawbacks. First, nonprofits can only visit facilities upon invitation, which leads to training inconsistencies between facilities that participate and those that don’t. Second, nonprofits against trafficking are often faith-based, so training can involve opening prayers and religious references, which deters some officers from signing up. This creates even greater training inconsistencies among individual officers.
John Meekins, a correctional officer in central Florida, elaborated on the issue with faith-based programs. “Although they mean well, they are super religious,” said Meekins. “So in order to get trained, or for a girl to get help, they have to subscribe to what these people are saying about religion… I guess it’s better than nothing.”
To highlight the problem of inconsistent staff training, Meekins conducted a survey among trafficking victims in the correctional facility where he works. He asked the women what officers could have done better in handling their cases.
One trafficking survivor, Jane*, responded by recounting the beating and sexual assault she endured on the street at the hands of a stranger. She also recalled how police dropped the investigation as soon as they saw her two previous arrests for prostitution. “When they looked at my record, they figured I was on a date and it got out of hand,” she wrote. The officers, without the benefit of training, did not consider any other possibilities.
Learning to Ask the Right Questions
As many trafficking survivors report, what was often deemed “prostitution” were actually cases of forced sex labor. Jane also emphasized the need for officers to ask questions. “Ask why they are doing it, are they being forced, do they need help,” she wrote on the questionnaire. “Don’t belittle and treat every girl who is convicted of prostitution as something not serious.”
Meekins acted on his survey findings by expanding his anti-trafficking campaign at his facility. He collaborated with American Military University to create information packs: 4×6 red cards with 16 signs of trafficking listed on one side, and a list of standard questions to ask a suspected victim on the other.
“Have you ever engaged in prostitution? If so, how were you introduced to it?” reads the fifth of six questions. The rest of the queries involve employment, boyfriends, and criminal pasts. Meekins is cognizant that women involved with trafficking rings often have romantic entanglements, sketchy job histories, and earlier convictions for crimes other than prostitution.
Survivors, like Dellaca-Hedrick in Indiana and Alles in Florida, have been important in driving the change in response. Tajuan McCarty, another human trafficking survivor, founded the WellHouse in Alabama for victims of trafficking. She was arrested “more times than she can even remember” during her 10 years as a victim. Not once, she said, was she asked how she accumulated more than ten prostitution arrests, nor was she screened for trafficking.
“I was just another prostitute in there, and was treated as such,” she said of the jails she passed through. No one ever realized she was under the control of a trafficker.
Eventually McCarty escaped her abuser, went back to school, and opened a safe house for other exploited women. She explained that when these women come into contact with officers, they are often met with prostitution records instead of investigations into their abusers. Even if victims are fortunate enough to escape the control of a trafficker, prostitution arrests can make their rehabilitation process and assimilation back into society incredibly difficult.
The Legal Battle for Victims
Brent Woody, a Florida State University Law School graduate, has taken it upon himself to help rehabilitate victims and get their haunting criminal records expunged. “If they can get those records expunged, it opens a whole new world for them to get funding, scholarships and the help they need to start a new life,” Woody said. “They’re not criminals, they’re victims.”
In 2013, Woody worked with a state legislative team to pass a statute that allows expungement if the women can prove at trial that they were under a trafficker’s control at the time of arrest. Woody helps women to collect official documentation of their cases to match federal human trafficking definition standards. Since the legislation became state law three years ago, he has been successful in all 12 cases he has taken on.
Florida’s expungement law followed legislation first passed by New York in 2010 that allowed for the sealing of victims’ records. Fifteen other states followed, forcing courts to seriously consider that trafficking might be the cause behind certain prostitution cases. Currently, 27 states also have laws in place, which offer women some kind of restitution if they can prove that they were trafficked. They too can have their records sealed or cleared.
Former Chief State Judge of New York Jonathan Lippman started one of the first task forces in the country dedicated to helping trafficking victims who had been wrongly convicted of prostitution. It is made up of “judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, members of law enforcement, legislators, executive branch officials, forensic experts, victim’s advocates and legal scholars” its website says.
Lippman also opened Human Trafficking Courts in the state, providing women charged with prostitution with a place to have their arraignments where there was an option other than plea guilty or go to trial. In these new courts, , their charges could be dropped.
“The focus should be on the demand, on the traffickers and the buyers,” Lippman said in a 2014 New York Times article. “The reality is we don’t make decisions as to who gets arrested, and we want to assure that these victims get the assistance that they need and ultimately get out of ‘the life.’”
To manage the women brought into these courts, Lippman appointed Leigh Latimer in 2009 to lead in the defense of women charged with prostitution. At the time, Latimer had spent more than 20 years working for the Legal Aid Society in New York, aiding and defending those who could not afford legal representation. Although she worked heavily with those faced with drug charges, she always held a special place in her heart for women charged with prostitution. She noticed throughout her career that these women had generally been subjected to some kind of abuse or exploitation.
Although not all of her clients were necessarily victims of sex trafficking, the opening of the Human Trafficking Courts combined with human trafficking training – which the Legal Aid Society now offers to law enforcement, judges and lawyers among others – helped her better understand how human trafficking victims end up with prostitution charges. Through a long and grueling process that can take up to two years to complete, she has helped dozens of victims get their records sealed.
The Legal Aid Society is not obligated to screen for trafficking in those it represents, but if trafficking is detected, the lawyers are trained to respond appropriately and lead victims to necessary services. “If clients do disclose trafficking, then there may be other levels of work we can do with them,” Latimer said. If trafficking is suspected and confirmed, the lawyers know how to converse and seek medical and psychological care for them.
About the Author: Larson Binzer is a recent graduate from New York University, where she studied political science and journalism, graduating with honors. She was a senior editor for the student newspaper Washington Square News, and interned at several anti-trafficking nonprofits and as a press intern on Capitol Hill. Originally from Texas, she now lives and works in New York City and plans on attending law school in the fall of 2017.