Night Shifts Newsletter No. 3

Sex Work: Should sex workers be incarcerated?

Much of the nonprofit organization’s focus is on helping women who find themselves
serving longer-term prison sentences. This happens to women in Florida, for example,
because their third arrest is considered a felony and comes with a mandatory one-year
sentence. That imprisonment can be extended if there were any adjacent charges such as
shoplifting, simple assault or drug-related offenses.

“What’s increasingly happening as prostitution charges are becoming socially and
culturally less in vogue is a lot of local prosecutors are declining to prosecute for
prostitution or just for doing sex work, especially during the pandemic when they were
trying to reduce the number of people in prisons,” Hopkins observes. “What they will do
instead, though, is find different charges to tack on.”

When women are incarcerated for longer sentences, SWOP Behind Bars provides
financial support to purchase hygiene products or other items from the prison
commissary. To furnish some relief from isolation, they run a “Mentor By Mail” program
that connects people with incarcerated sex workers to build outside social support. So that
inmates can receive books, they maintain an “Amazon wish list” for roughly 500 to 700
people, which fluctuates with inmate turnover. They also distribute a monthly newsletter
to nearly 6,000 people.

For those who would like to pursue their GED, SWOP Behind Bars distributes GED
study materials. The organization, Hopkins informs, is now working with Edovo to
develop curricula around reentry services including legal and financial literacy courses
prior to their release to give them a head start. Edovo employs tablet technology to
facilitate free access to educational programming and low-cost communications for
people in jails and prisons that are designed to increase opportunities for rehabilitation.

“We also do active case management that is client-directed, self-directed case
management for helping people reenter successfully,” Hopkins adds. “As far as our case
management, we probably have 20-ish right now that we’re working in a long-term
capacity, those who work with us more than six months after their release.”

Hopkins says they do see victims of human trafficking in prisons, who often don’t even
realize it, since a lot of people don’t understand how trafficking manifests through force,
fraud or coercion in the murky underground world of criminal traffickers or frequently as
a result of domestic violence. Recognizing that not only do survivors need to learn about
how sex trafficking occurs, but many professionals working in law enforcement and the
justice system are woefully uniformed and unaware. Law enforcement, she believes, still
struggles to rectify the chasm between victim and offender, so that remains a challenge
but it’s getting better.

“We’re actually developing a curriculum for that, too,” Hopkins says. “That’s going to be
part of mandatory continuing education for law enforcement and court professionals that
will cover the unique obstacles when working with incarcerated human trafficking
survivors or victims of labor exploitation.”

Blair and her organization support the full decriminalization of sex work. However, as a
nonprofit entity, they have to strike the balance between pursuing advocacy and social
justice work and not offending funding organizations, clients, their community or other
organizations with similar missions. Nonetheless, they find ways to overcome any
limitations to actively advocate for decriminalizing.

“I do talk to the community and with legislators when it’s appropriate, but one of our
core values is cultivating community leadership,” Hopkins says. “If we get sex workers
and others into a position where they are stabilized and have options, we can then
empower them to advocate for what they believe is appropriate for their communities
with a full set of facts, and we can pass the microphone to them.”

SWOP Behind Bars co-founder, Alex Andrews is one of the plaintiffs on the Woodhull
vs. the United States lawsuit against the consequences of the Fighting Online Sex
Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). They are also
signed on to support an amicus brief in that lawsuit.

I will be writing much more about that case and some of the key players involved in
upcoming issues.

For additional information about Alex Andrews and SWOP Behind Bars, check out this
article in Tits and Sass: Service Journalism By and For Sex Workers.
Next Up: J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly and the work of the Ishtar Collective to decriminalize,
destigmatize and advocate for sex worker rights.