Arizona has some of the harshest penalties for prostitution in the US. Even the Phoenix Police Department and District Attorney’s office see a need for change. Project ROSE (Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation), is a new collaboration between police, prosecutors and University of Arizona’s School of Social Work that is hailed as an effort at offering an alternative. However, after spending two days with Project ROSE, I found many of those affected by these laws felt that this high-profile reform made little difference.
Arizona is one of a handful of states that dictates mandatory minimums and felony upgrades for selling sex. Those convicted for the first time serve 15 days in jail with no possibility of probation or parole. The 4th conviction rises to the level of an automatic felony and a minimum of 180 days. “I've worked on these issues for more than 20 years,” said Penelope Saunders, an advocate for reform of policies related to sex work and director of Best Practices Policy Project. “I've been a harm reductionist, I've been a service provider, I've been a researcher, and even I was not aware of the degree to which people are being incarcerated here in Arizona for prostitution related offenses.”
However, the city of Phoenix has had a diversion program on the books since 1997. On their first prostitution conviction, people are offered the choice to take classes through a program offered by Catholic Charities instead of jail. If they complete the program, they will not have a conviction on their record.
Project ROSE, started in 2011, brings a new innovation: those arrested are brought straight to a donated space in a church rather than taken to jail or seeing a judge. Once there, they meet with representatives from the police and prosecutors and if they agree to stay, they meet with social service agencies and are asked to take a several-month-long diversion program offered by Catholic Charities.
About 10% of those arrested and brought to Project ROSE do not qualify for any assistance – generally because they have an outstanding warrant or too many convictions. Those people are led out in handcuffs and taken to jail. Of those that remain and choose to take the diversion program, about 30% complete it, and overall about 10% are re-arrested within the first year. These percentages of completion and of re-arrest are nearly the same as without Project ROSE, fueling complaints from advocates that Project ROSE does not offer real reform.
For many, the injustice of Arizona’s system was crystallized by the death of a 48-year-old woman named Marcia Powell. Powell was an indigent woman with mental health issues who had been convicted multiple times for drug possession and prostitution. In 2008, offering oral sex to a police officer for $20 got her a 27 month felony sentence in maximum security at Perryville prison, just outside Phoenix. One inside, she got placed on suicide watch. But instead of keeping an eye on her, corrections officers placed her in a cage in the blazing sun for nearly four hours on a 107 degree day. Powell died, and sixteen corrections employees were eventually fired or disciplined.
A report from the Arizona Department of Corrections recommended negligent homicide charges against at least seven of the officers, but the district attorney declined to pursue charges. “If one person faced what Marcia Powell faced, then many, many other people who are incarcerated in Arizona are also at risk,” says Saunders, who points out that Powell, like many women on the fringes of society, would not have qualified for the help offered at Project ROSE. “Prison is not a safe place for women. Your health will get worse while you're in prison. You are not kept safe. Violence can be perpetuated against you. You can lose your life. Marcia Powell was sentenced to 27 months in Perryville Prison for prostitution. But really it was a death sentence.”
Another issue that has legal advocates concerned: those arrested and taken to Project ROSE are not allowed to consult with a lawyer. Monica Jones, a former sex worker who was arrested and brought to Project ROSE, told officers she was innocent and asked to see a lawyer. She says she was told the only lawyer she could talk to was the prosecutor. I asked John Tutelman, charging bureau chief with the Phoenix prosecutor’s office, why defense attorneys were not allowed. “We have considered that,” he told me. “But this is not a legal process. You are entitled to an attorney to defend you when it’s a legal process.” Tutelman added that, “The women are not under arrest. They go in and they talk to police officers in the police room here. And they give them a lot of information. And it’s not because they are under arrest or they are in any way compelled to do it at that juncture, just like we’re not compelling them as prosecutors.”
Tutelman’s stance that the women are not under arrest did not seem to match the reality I saw around me of women in handcuffs. I asked him about what happens when police put these women in a car and tell them they are coming to Project ROSE. If the woman asks if she is under arrest, what will police officers say? “They are under arrest,” admitted Tutelman. “But when a police officer arrests someone, they don’t have to book them into jail. And basically, that’s what they’re doing.” Advocates I spoke with questioned if those arrested and denied attorney are really not “compelled” to speak with officers and prosecutors.
Project ROSE involves 100 officers or more engaging in two days of mass arrests. For founders, the large amount of officers involved is part of the appeal. But advocates say this is part of the problem. A recent editorial in a social work journal questioned the ethics of Project ROSE because of this collaboration. “Social workers should be deeply troubled by social work interventions that target individuals for arrest as a means of providing services,” write Stéphanie Wahab and Meg Panichelli. “We believe that targeting people for arrest under the guise of helping them violates numerous ethical standards as well as the humanity of people engaged in the sex industry.”
“Project Rose seems to be blurring the lines between linking people to social services and arresting them,” agrees Saunders. “And as a harm reductionist, that is worrisome to me. When we link people to services, they should be given freely. No one should be forced to engage in the program. There's a justification to say even if we help only one person, or 10 people, the rights violations of all the other people are worth it. And I would say that that's a false dichotomy.”
Activists from Sex Workers Outreach Project of PHOENIX have protested Project ROSE, and done street outreach in the days leading up to the raids, both offering safe sex and drug use supplies, and also warning people about the raids. “By viewing all sex workers as victims, and then going out and revictimizing them through using police force, which is violent and traumatic, it just seems very counterintuitive,” says Jaclyn Moskal-Dairman, a volunteer with the organization. “The way they're going about it completely lacks a nuanced analysis of these women's lives. For example, if I was working and taken off the street and told I couldn't work, then I wouldn't be able to afford basics or I wouldn't be able to go to school, or take care of my children, or have child care.”
Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, Associate Professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Social Work and co-founder of the program, strongly defends Project ROSE. She says that almost all of the people she sees in this work are victims in need of rescue. “Once you've prostituted, you can never not have prostituted. You are always identified, even by yourself that way,” she says. “Having that many body parts in your body parts, having that many body fluids near you and doing things that are freaky and weird really messes up your ideas of what a relationship looks like, and intimacy.”
Monica Jones, who has been through the program and is also a member of SWOP, finds this attitude overly judgemental. “They're forcing their morals on you,” she says. “It doesn't help the women that are single mothers and trying to make money. It doesn't help a runaway teen. It doesn't help a person out there making money for themself.” When Jones went through the prostitution diversion program offered at Project ROSE, she says she was kicked out because of her views. SWOP activists believe that in her most recent arrest Jones was targeted because she is a transgender woman. The fact that she was arrested just hours after she was protesting Project ROSE has also drawn suspicion about the motivations behind her arrest.
Jones is being charged with “manifesting” prostitution. Phoenix city law allows officers to arrest people they suspect of prostitution, even if they don’t offer sex for money. Evidence can include what they are wearing, what neighborhood they are in, and even asking someone if they are a police officer or attempting to “engage passerby in conversation.”
Nationally, there has been a shift towards seeing women involved in the sex trade as victims, rather than criminals. Public relations campaigns by celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, and increased federal funding that encourages law enforcement to go after “sex traffickers” has fueled the push for reforms. But activists say the result has been to treat all women in the trade as victims. Organizations like Sex Workers Outreach Project, which are mostly made up of current and former sex workers, say that the victimization framework ignores the experiences of women who make the choice to sell sex and robs them of their free agency. A study of sex workers by Young Women’s Empowerment Project in Chicago found that violence and harassment by police was the biggest danger reported by those in the business. 32% of respondents reported violence or harassment from police, including sexual assault, while only 4% reported violence from pimps. They concluded that the biggest threat was not the work itself, but the atmosphere created by making it illegal.
That kind of data makes clear why advocates are distrustful of programs like Project ROSE that rely on police. In two days at Project ROSE, I watched dozens of handcuffed women led in by police. It seemed like a traumatic experience. “This is hostile. I'm the one being kidnapped,” said one woman I observed during her intake into Project ROSE.
Lieutenant Gallagher, an 18-year veteran of the Phoenix police department sees every sex worker as a victim of trafficking. “What we have found through our investigations, through interviews and our contacts with the victims of this problem is that everybody's trafficked by something,” he says. “Most often they're trafficked by a pimp. Other times they're trafficked by an economic need or, you know, a need for socialization, or they've got a kid that they have to feed.”
While seeing the women as victims, Gallagher also believes that arrest is an important tool. “You have to break down these barriers that traffickers put on these women, to get them to give up their normal. They've come to normalize the abnormal.”
Not surprisingly, Saunders disagrees. “Trafficking in humans is not the same as sex work,” she says. “Trafficking is an egregious human rights violation that can occur in any sector. It can occur in agriculture, it can occur in domestic work, it can occur in restaurants. I think that Project Rose miscommunicates this by saying that arresting people who are engaged in sex work on any level is an initiative against human trafficking. No, arresting people engaging in sex work is arresting people engaged in sex work.”
Another woman I met after her arrest, Cacee (she asked me not to reveal her real name), was arrested three times this year. In the spring, she completed the diversion program offered through Project ROSE, so she is not eligible again. This means this arrest will likely bring her jail time. She thought the diversion program was a positive experience, but the allure of the money makes sex work hard for her to leave. “If someone offers you 200 bucks and says ‘let's go have some sex,’ you're just like, oh wow. You know what you can do in 10, 15 minutes to bust a nut with somebody, you can get 200 bucks. It's like wow, I've been doing it all my life for free. It's so easy to make somebody come. Somebody can look at your breasts and just come, and you'll get 200 bucks.”
Cacee has tried other jobs, and was good at them. “I was the assistant manager to Denny's for all the servers, and I was the trainer for all the servers,” she says. “I even worked at McDonalds. I did CNA work, I've been in pretty much every field that you can be in. But as a single mother, I just never wanted to struggle, ever.”
But Cacee found sex work offered stability she couldn’t find in other work. “When I was going through the Project Rose, I was getting kicked out, evicted from a lot of places,” Cacee explained. “I didn't have money for rent because I was doing so much to, you know, trying to be good and have a job and stay out.”
The experience of going through Project ROSE made Cacee want to start her own program, one that would offer free housing to women that needed support, and be less judgmental than shelters and other services that exist now. “Any place like that should be open to anyone,” she said. “You accept all people for who they are, no matter what they've done, they should all be able to have a home.”
Jordan Flaherty is a TV news producer at Al Jazeera America and the author of FLOODLINES: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six.