Guardian investigation finds incarcerated women are groomed by pimps and forced into sex work once released
Women in prisons across the US are being recruited by sex traffickers who force them into prostitution on their release.
A Guardian investigation has found that traffickers are using government websites to obtain personal information including mugshots, release dates and charge sheets to identify potential victims while they are still behind bars.
Pimps also use inmates in prisons and jails countrywide to befriend incarcerated women who, on their release, are trafficked into the $9.5bn (£7.2bn) US commercial sex industry.
The investigation also found cases of the bail bond system being used in sex trafficking operations in at least five different states. Pimps and sex buyers are locating incarcerated women awaiting a court date by using personal data such as mugshots and bail bonds posted online, or through corrupt bondsmen.
Traffickers are then bailing women out of detention. Once released, the women are told they must work as prostitutes or have their bond rescinded and be sent back to jail.
Over the course of the investigation, The Guardian found cases of the bail bond system being used by pimps and sex buyers in Florida, Texas, Ohio, North Carolina and Mississippi.
“The pimps would use bail as a way to control us and keep us in debt bondage,” said one trafficking survivor from Tampa, Florida. She claimed she was forced to work as a prostitute to pay off her bail debt and locked inside a house and beaten if she didn’t bring home enough money.
“Once when I tried to escape, the pimp revoked my bond. He found me, threw me in a car and got me sent back to jail,” she said.
Diane Checchio, a former prosecutor for the district attorney’s office in Orlando, Florida, said the bail bond system was routinely exploited by traffickers.
Up to 80% of the trafficking cases she worked on in 2016 involved bondsmen found to be illegally passing on information about women arrested on prostitution charges to suspected traffickers.
“Sometimes women are released not knowing who bonded them out or why, or what they’ve gotten into, and now they’re being coerced,” Checchio said. “They come out of jail and there’s someone waiting saying: ‘I posted your bond – now you owe me’ … [They will] threaten to rescind that bond if the girls don’t do what they’re asked or told to do. It’s still happening now.”
Checchio said traffickers were likely to be targeting women involved in the criminal justice system across the country.
“I would find it very likely that this is happening in every state that has women’s records online,” she said.
‘Predators thrive off isolation and trauma, so prisons and jails are perfect hunting grounds’: Nikki Bell, head of anti-trafficking organisation Lift.
Once they have identified a potential target inside a prison or jail, traffickers will try to establish a relationship by using letters, phone calls and promises of money and housing when the victim is released. Prison bank accounts are also used to send money to women, establishing a debt that is used to coerce them into prostitution on their release.
“When I was in prison [in Ohio] I had pimps I knew from the streets, and men I had never met, writing to me to try and convince me to go home with them,” said Amy Williams*, who was incarcerated in state prisons and county jails in Ohio over a 15-year period.
“Some of us knew what we were going back into but didn’t feel we had any other choice, as they’d be waiting for us anyway. Other girls I knew had no idea that they would be put on the streets by this person.”
Pimp-controlled prostitution is now recognised as one of the most brutal and pervasive forms of human trafficking in the US. Trafficking is defined under US federal and international law as when a person is induced to perform labour or a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion.
How sex traffickers use the bail bond system to exploit women
1- A woman is arrested and charged with a crime such as prostitution or drug possession
2- Traffickers use inmate recruiters, corrupt bondsmen and online data to find women awaiting a court date
3- Traffickers bail the women out, either through cash bonds or via corrupt bondsmen
4- Once released, the women are given a choice between working as prostitutes or having their bond rescinded, forcing them to return to jail
Over the course of the investigation, the Guardian gathered testimony from more than 20 trafficking survivors in 11 states across the country, as well as correctional officers, convicted sex traffickers, law enforcement officials, lawyers, prosecutors and frontline workers. All corroborated that prisons and jails were being used as recruiting grounds for human traffickers.
There are currently 1.2 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system in the US. Women now comprise a larger proportion of the prison population than ever before, with the number incarcerated eight times higher than in 1980.
Many women are jailed for non-violent offences, with 25% incarcerated on drug-related charges. Many of the women interviewed had been jailed multiple times and had fallen in and out of the control of pimps over a period of years.
A 2017 survey of 130 trafficking survivors by the National Survivors Network, an advocacy and campaigning group, found that 91% of respondents said they had been arrested not only for prostitution but also for the sale and possession of drugs and a range of other crimes.
“Predators thrive off isolation and trauma, so prisons and jails are perfect hunting grounds because there you have a captive population of women who often have nowhere to go, and no support when they’re released,” said Nicole Bell, a trafficking survivor and founder of Living in Freedom Together, an anti-trafficking organisation in Massachusetts.
“Now they have figured out how to work the system, these institutions have become like big fish bowls for traffickers. Incarceration takes vulnerable women and makes them more vulnerable,” she said.
Anti-trafficking campaigners said correctional facilities must do more to prioritise the safety and protection of inmates and ensure staff understand the vulnerability of their institutions to human trafficking.
National anti-trafficking advocate Marian Hatcher has accused prisons and jails of failing women.
“Our correctional facilities have a legal responsibility to protect the women who are under their charge,” said Marian Hatcher, a national anti-trafficking advocate and human trafficking coordinator at the Cook County sheriff’s office of public policy in Chicago.
“If inmates are being targeted while inside our prisons and jails by predators, instead of being offered the chance of an alternative when they are released, then this is a systemic failing of our duty of care to some of our country’s most vulnerable women.”
The US Department of Justice declined to comment.
OP: Enslavement of human beings for sex is a common problem and it exists all over the world.
Other examples from western countries:
-Another recent investigation (also published in The Guardian) found that thousands are enslaved in forced marriages in the UK. "More than 3,500 reports of forced marriage were made to police over a three-year period, a Guardian investigation has found, as charities warned that there were thousands more victims living in conditions of modern slavery in homes across the UK."
-As the recent case involving former Smallville actress Allison Mack and the Nxivm cult illustrates, this can happen in a wide range of circumstances.
-Another case (in Canada): "At 24, Kaitlin said she began dating a man who forced her to have sex with multiple men for money in different hotels daily." (OP: This illustrates another approach of pimps/sex traffickers, who will 'date' women and girls in order to recruit them.) (Another example of a case like this is here.)
-Enslavement of people for sex can also cross borders. For example, (From PBS Newshour, 2016): "African women seeking a better life in Europe face a long, perilous, often fatal journey across the Mediterranean. But when they do arrive, they confront yet another threatening prospect: conscription into sex slavery. Eighty percent of all Nigerian women who survive the trip to Italy end up coerced into prostitution by “Madams,” who are often former sex slaves themselves."
-An estimation of human trafficking in Europe (2012 to 2014 figures): (Note that the term 'human trafficking' also includes enslavement for other purposes such as forced labor.) 67% of registered victims were victims of sexual exploitation and 95% of these particular victims were women.
-People under the age of 18 reportedly made up about a quarter of recorded human trafficking victims in Canada between 2009 and 2014.
-In Human Trafficking Report, State Dept. Warns Against Separating Children From Parents. "The State Department warned in a report on Thursday that separating children from their parents can cause lasting psychological damage that leaves them vulnerable to trafficking, a cautionary tale that comes amid an uproar over a Trump administration immigration policy that has temporarily broken up migrant families as they enter the United States."
OP: Enslavement for sex takes place all over the world however, as the following story illustrates all too well. The story below is from earlier this year, and shows just how much human beings can suck, IMHO.
Tricked and trapped: Inside the Rohingya trade
After escaping violence in Myanmar, Rohingya women find themselves still vulnerable in Bangladesh's refugee camps.
They witnessed their families being murdered and their homes burned to the ground in what the UNcalls a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing".
With only the clothes they were wearing, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled their villages in Myanmar in search of refuge in Bangladesh.
But hidden behind closed doors in the sprawling refugee camps, many Rohingya women and girls continue to be exploited and abused.
According to UN estimates, women and girls make up two-thirds of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
Al Jazeera's 101 East went to find out how women are being trafficked, tricked and traded amid the chaos of Bangladesh's crowded camps.
Fatima, 15, child bride: 'I can't say no'
Fatima still remembers the day in August 2017, when soldiers from the Myanmar military came to her village - and suddenly everything changed.
"I used to hang out with my friends, putting on makeup, shopping for clothes and eating. We'd chat with friends and family, laugh and enjoy ourselves," she says.
A few months on, she stands in her family's hut in Kutupalong refugee camp on Bangladesh's border with Myanmar. Her hands are decorated with henna, drawn in preparation for her wedding.
She has never met her future husband.
While child marriage is common in the Rohingya community, Fatima wanted to wait. But her father says he doesn't have the money to keep her.
"They didn't ask me and I didn't say anything. But whatever decision they make, I have to follow. I can't go against it. I can't say 'no.'"
Fatima is distraught as she is dressed for her wedding. Soon, she will be escorted from her home to her in-laws' house for the ceremony. She will live with them for the rest of her life, taking care of her husband's family.
"I feel very sad. How can I go to someone else's house and live my life? I'm going to miss my family."
Fatima's father: 'It's safer for our girls to get married'
Child marriage is common in the Rohingya community, and Fatima's father agreed to marry his 15-year-old daughter off because he will have one less mouth to feed.
"When she's married there will be less burden on me, because we need to buy her clothes and other things. It's not necessary for a girl to be 18. I have to get her married - whether she is 15, 17 or 18. There's no benefit in keeping girls," he says.
And since the family fled their home in Myanmar and came to the crowded refugee camp in Bangladesh, he has also become concerned about their safety.
"The camp's here are so crowded. As parents, we feel it's much safer for our girls to get married quickly to avoid any kinds of incidents. I'm afraid of the boys. You never know what could happen. They might take my daughter away and that would be shameful for me."
'Sharifa', 14, sex worker: 'So much pain in my heart'
Some of the Rohingya girls end up in Cox's Bazaar, a tourist town not far from the refugee camps which is notorious for its thriving sex industry.
'Sharifa' (which is not her real name) fled her village in Myanmar after she saw soldiers gang-rape and murder her two sisters. She says she also witnessed them slaughter her father and brother.
Traumatised, 'Sharifa' escaped to Bangladesh with her mother and remaining siblings. Before they reached the refugee camps, they were befriended by a Rohingya woman who promised to find 'Sharifa' a job as a cleaner.
Instead, the woman became her pimp.
"She told me that I was going to someone's house to clean. I said, 'Yes, I'll go'. When I got there, there was a man and I was afraid of him.
"I felt so sad. I had so much pain in my heart. My head hurt and I was afraid that my family would find out.
The pimp pays 'Sharifa' $3 a customer and controls her every move. She feels she has no choice but to continue working to provide for her family.
"She told me that when someone calls I need to go where they want and do whatever they say. I just do what they tell me. We don't have any money or anything else. My mother and brother are both sick," she says.
"I think about how I can study again. How can I be a good person?... How long do I have to keep going to customers' houses?"
Pimp: 'We target poor girls who are good-looking'
Many Rohingya girls like 'Sharifa' are being forced or tricked into prostitution, and it seems that the recent influx of refugees from Myanmar has fuelled the sex trade in Bangladesh.
101 East meets a pimp who has been working in the sex trade for two years. He says most of his customers are Bangladeshi businessmen, tourists and locals.
"Our customers prefer Rohingya girls who have just arrived and also very young girls. They like beautiful and presentable girls."
He explains how they trick the girls into a life of exploitation: "We target girls who only have a single parent, girls with only a father or mother. We also target poor girls who are good-looking ... We treat them to tea and snacks and eventually we tell them that we can get them a job to support their family ...
"They come because they don't have another option."
Johara, 17, kidnap victim: 'I live in terror now'
Johara Begum walked through dense forest for two weeks without food or water to escape attacks from the Myanmar military on her village.
When she arrived in Bangladesh's overcrowded refugee camps, another Rohingya woman befriended her and offered to show her around the camp. Instead, Johara was kidnapped and held hostage while the woman arranged to sell her.
"They put me in another room. They blindfolded me and bound my mouth. I was wearing earrings and a ring from Myanmar, which my mother had given me. They wanted my jewellery and when I resisted they beat me," she says.
Johara's mother managed to rescue her before she was trafficked, but now she lives in constant fear that they will come back for her daughter.
"I live in terror now. Sometimes so much that I can't speak. I never go out. I'm too scared to even sleep."
(OP note: SOURCE 2 has video which won't embed...)
-My earlier post on human trafficking (focuses on trafficking for purposes of forced labor).
-Human trafficking FAQ (at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime): deals with all forms of human trafficking, including sex trafficking.
-Myanmar among worst places for human trafficking, US report says. "Myanmar has joined China, Syria and South Sudan as being among the countries doing least to tackle human trafficking, according to the US State Department's latest annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. The US report specifically cited the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis as the reason for downgrading Myanmar to Tier 3, the bottom rung of the TIP scale, which rates the best performing countries at Tier 1. Many of those fleeing "were subjected to exploitation -- or transported to other countries for the purpose of sex trafficking -- as a result of their displacement," the US State Department report said, adding that refugees were also vulnerable to "forced labor" in jade mines and other industries."
-From the International Labour Organization (ILO) (i.e. a UN agency): "At any given time in 2016, an estimated 40.3 million people are in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labour and 15.4 million in forced marriage. It means there are 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the world. 1 in 4 victims of modern slavery are children. Out of the 24.9 million people trapped in forced labour, 16 million people are exploited in the private sector such as domestic work, construction or agriculture; 4.8 million persons in forced sexual exploitation, and 4 million persons in forced labour imposed by state authorities. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labour, accounting for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58% in other sectors."
-Which countries have the worst record for human trafficking? (From 2014)
-The racial roots of human trafficking.
-"[A] study by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Statistics of 42 federally funded human trafficking task forces found that 94 percent of victims of sex trafficking are female, and roughly three quarters are people of color." (Quote is from this reference.)