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The Prison Pipeline: Fighting Human Trafficking From Inside Prison Walls

Editor’s Note: This article is the fourth in a series about the recruitment of women into human trafficking networks. Read the first installment, second installment, and third installment.

By Larson Binzer

Correctional officer John Meekins first began his fight against human trafficking in 2010. To begin with, his reach was limited to correctional facilities in central Florida. But within a year, he had joined Shared Hope International and the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators, organizations that deal with prevention and awareness. Meekins then began giving presentations around the country, including to the American Correctional Association,  in hopes of influencing other correctional officers to take note of what was going on with women in their care.

In 2013, Indiana’s Deputy Commissioner of Operations James Basinger attended a conference in Florida where Meekins was presenting. Meekins’ presentation, which shared statistics and testimonies from trafficking victims who had been incarcerated, struck a chord with Basinger. Perhaps he, too, had overlooked signs of trafficking in women under his supervision.

[Related: Human Trafficking Thrives Because Officers Don’t Know What It Is]

When he returned to Indiana, Basinger contacted the Attorney General’s office to seek out training for the staff of women’s correctional facilities. He was put in touch with IPATH—Indiana Protection for Abused and Trafficked Humans— to set up a training session for Indiana’s correctional staff of the female institution.

Almost immediately, correctional officers and other employees were put through mandatory training to recognize and respond to signs of sexual abuse in inmates. Within a few months, a recruiter was identified in the women’s prison. She had been writing letters to her trafficker where she shared observations about inmates who might make potential recruits.

“There was an incident where females were trying to recruit other females—vulnerable females at the institutions—to get them involved in sex trafficking once they were released,” said Sandra Kibby-Brown, an operations officer in the Indiana Department of Corrections. “These were usually females who had no support upon their release—no family and friends.”

Kibby-Brown says that the training opened the eyes of prison staff to signs that had always existed, but never been recognized. Now with training, officers could carefully oversee their inmates’ relationships with visitors and understand the terms and codes used in frequent phone calls and correspondence with traffickers. Kibby-Brown explained that before the training program, “nobody was thinking in terms of slavery” when it came to women in jail for prostitution.

[Related: Know the Language of Human Trafficking: A Glossary of Sex Trafficking Terms]

Educating Female Inmates So They Don’t Become Victims

The correctional department is now working with Indiana State University to create its own curriculum separate from IPATH’s. Instead of gearing the training exclusively towards the staff, the department is looking into using programs from victim service centers to develop a learning unit specifically for the incarcerated women themselves.

The program would explain what exactly constitutes trafficking, as many women under the control of pimps do not even realize they are being abused or that they are legally considered victims and entitled to restitution. Instead, similar to Stockholm Syndrome, pimps have convinced their victims that they are willing participants in the abuse and sex work. The classes would also give women access to avenues through which they could report their suspected traffickers. The goal would be to offer this voluntary class to all inmates, but particularly encourage those who are at high risk for trafficking to attend.

Fortunately, Indiana can model this program after similar efforts in other states. Ohio women’s prisons have implemented similar classes. Although Ohio’s Department of Corrections has not been as aggressive against trafficking as Indiana’s, some individual staff members in Ohio have come together to create the Higher Risk Trade Center for Women.

Heidi Bishop, an Ohio Department of Corrections staff member, is one of these employees. Bishop received her master’s degree in Social Work from Ohio State in 2014. That same year, the Attorney General of Ohio, Mike DeWine, implemented a mandatory human trafficking screening program for all women upon entry into the prison system. If the screening reveals that a woman has been trafficked, she is put into a specialized program for prison populations that Bishop created. Bishop estimates that two to three new trafficking victims enter the Ohio female correctional system each month.

In Ohio, there is nothing Bishop can do to eradicate or reduce the victims’ prison sentences, but she runs an educational program geared towards helping them get out of “the life” after they’ve served their time. The reformatory program lasts up to 16 weeks and is essentially a series of roundtable discussions led by Bishop and a Salvation Army representative. Each session consists of the same group of identified victims and discusses what trafficking is, how pimps exploit their girls, and the psychological impact of shame and disgust. Every couple of months, a new round of sessions begins for incoming women once the previous group has “graduated.”

Stemming Recruitment Within Prisons

The Ohio reformatory— like Indiana and Florida—has found incidents of recruitment within its facility. Bishop says it usually happens during a woman’s first 30 to 45 days of incarceration because this is when new inmates struggle to find work duty to make money. The lack of money leaves inmates dependent on families and friends and if they don’t receive financial assistance, they are particularly vulnerable to traffickers, often through the JPay trafficker arrangement.

Although Bishop and her colleagues have detected and attempted to respond to this problem, the reformatory is understaffed and undertrained. Bishop, as a social worker, already has a caseload of about 100 inmates on top of her work in anti-trafficking, where she deals with issues including inmate relationships, addiction, and domestic violence.

“When survivors are referred to me, 85-to-90 percent of the time they aren’t my clients to begin with, so I am adding clients to my [already large caseload,” Bishop said. “It is a hard balance, trying to give [human trafficking survivors] the services they need but not having all the time I need to do that.”

Another issue that the reformatory faces is a lack of staffing. Every prison has an investigation team that handles internal issues, such as rape allegations, staff abusing inmates, and drug activity. These investigators in Ohio have been trained in human trafficking issues, but for the reformatory’s total 2,600 inmates, there are only two investigators responsible for all internal criminal investigations. This leaves no time to screen every single phone call and letter with the necessary detail to catch nuances that indicate a trafficking instance, regardless of how well trained the investigators might be.

The National Institute of Corrections is “well aware that a too- high percentage of incarcerated women have been victims of human trafficking and know that traffickers are [reaching out to increasingly more women in] prisons and jails through a variety of means,” according to an email response from Maureen Buell, a Correctional Program Specialist at the Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C.

Buell also said that the National Institute of Corrections “might be” taking steps against these problems in the future. But as of now, even though they are aware of the issue, there is no action being taken from the federal control station of U.S. correctional institutions.

prisonAbout the Author: Larson Binzer is a recent graduate from New York University, where she studied political science and journalism, graduating with honors. She was a senior editor for the student newspaper Washington Square News, and interned at several anti-trafficking nonprofits and as a press intern on Capitol Hill. Originally from Texas, she now lives and works in New York City and plans on attending law school in the fall of 2017.

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