The Guardian’s article on America’s outcasts: the women trapped in a cruel cycle of exploitation

Caught in a recurring pattern of prostitution and incarceration, they are among the most vulnerable women in the US. Yet gaps in the criminal justice system, ruthlessly exploited by sex traffickers, make escape almost impossible

by and from the Guardian

EXCERPTS FROM ARTICLE

A Guardian/Observer investigation has found that jailhouses and prison cells across the US are routinely used as recruiting grounds by pimps and sex buyers.

Exploiting gaps in the criminal justice system, predators are targeting some of the country’s most vulnerable and isolated women, trapping many in an endless loop of criminalisation and exploitation.

State to state, the recruitment methods being used to target victims are broadly the same.

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Over the course of the investigation, the Guardian was granted access inside the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center. It is one of the few institutions that acknowledges it has an issue with the trafficking of inmates.

Nicole Bell, a trafficking survivor and founder of Lift, a local anti-trafficking organisation, runs workshops inside the jail to prevent inmates being groomed and recruited by pimps and sex buyers. She was repeatedly incarcerated at the jail when she was in the grip of addiction and prostitution on the streets of Worcester.

“I remember the feeling of dread whenever I came back here [to the jail], the feeling of hopelessness, the [sense of]: ‘How did I get back here?’” she says. “It took me a long time to recognise I was a victim myself, because society just treats us like criminals.”

The problem, says Bell, is that the women she works with don’t fit what many people imagine to be the profile of a trafficking victim. Much domestic trafficking in the US doesn’t involve people being transported across borders or controlled by organised criminal gangs. It is often very small and very local. In 2016, 37% of women who called a national helpline for trafficking victims said they had been trafficked by their partner.

“Trafficking for many of these women started with a relationship that turned exploitative, or a past that has led them to drug use – but because they’re involved in prostitution and addiction and have a criminal record, they’re treated like a throwaway population,” Bell says.

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From the Guardian. Nikki Bell, founder and director of anti-trafficking organisation Living in Freedom Together. Photograph: Rick Friedman for the Guardian

The impact of having a criminal record often makes it impossible for women leaving incarceration to find employment and safe housing, or to regain custody of their children.

“I try to help them when they get out but we don’t have a safe house, so when they’re released the traffickers are the ones who can help meet their basic needs,” says Bell. “It’s a matter of survival.”

Read the full article here