John Meekins has been a corrections officer in Florida for more than nine years. Throughout his career, he has often heard female inmates talk about being prostituted and held captive by pimps—a situation he initially considered a consequence for many drug abusers.
However, he started asking more questions and soon discovered many of these women are victims of human trafficking. With further inquiry, he also learned about a network of female prisoners who are actively recruiting inmates on behalf of outside pimps.
How Pimps Are Reaching Inside Prison Walls
Meekins discovered that pimps are using these inside recruiters to identify vulnerable women who are getting out of jail soon. Much of the communication between pimps and recruiters comes right through the prison mailroom. He has read dozens of letters written by pimps to their recruiters specifying how many women they must recruit and how much they will be paid for their services.
After women are recruited, pimps start personal conversations with them (often via mail) offering to take care of them when they are released. The pimps send them money as an act of good faith and then arrange to pick them up.
“The fact is when these women are released from prison after four of five years, they often don’t have job skills or even a stable place to go,” Meekins said. “That makes them vulnerable.”
Pimps often go above and beyond to meet the basic needs of these women. They feed and clothe them and provide them shelter. Pimps often give them their drug fix. In return, the women must pay the pimp back through prostitution. Often, they have no option to leave.
“Human trafficking within prison has been happening for a long time,” said Rob Stallworth, who spent 15 years as a parole officer in Virginia and now works for American Military University. “It’s definitely a trend that some people inside correctional facilities are seeing, but refuse to talk about.”
The Challenges of Reporting Human Trafficking
In Meekins’ experience, the formal reporting system within many prisons is not tailored to dealing with issues of trafficking.
“When reporting this crime, the problem is that many law enforcement officers and gang investigators don’t understand it because they don’t speak the language of trafficking and haven’t had the proper training,” he said. “Human trafficking is really different from other crimes we see in the prison system.”
Meekins suggests the most effective way to report information is to contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
The Need for Further Education and Training
It is critical for correctional facilities to increase the amount of training about the realities of human trafficking within the prison system. Prison authorities must:
- Educate inmates about human trafficking. Meekins suggests encouraging church groups or other non-NGOs to provide awareness training to inmates.
- Train the staff. Supervisors must educate staff members, especially those who screen phone calls and mail, and educate them about the signs of human trafficking. In Meekins’ case, he created posting posters with information about the indicators of human trafficking.
- Build better communication channels with law enforcement. The collaboration with law enforcement remains weak, at best. Corrections officers are often seen as the “mall cops” of the criminal justice system. However, the reality is that corrections officers often gather intelligence from inmates about everything from gang activity to specific crimes. Law enforcement and corrections agencies need to do a better job of collaborating with one another.
More about John Meekins: Meekins graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and is a member of the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators and the Florida Gang Investigators Association. Meekins has spent nine years working with female inmates in one of the largest female prisons in the nation. The information and perspective he provided in this article are his own opinions and do not reflect those of any department or agency. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.