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The Prison Pipeline: Inmates make easy targets for human traffickers

The prevalence of abuse and instability in the personal histories of many inmates makes them particularly vulnerable to traffickers


By Larson Binzer, special contributor to In Public Safety, American Military University

In 2010, at a women’s correctional facility in central Florida, a correctional officer happened to attend a seminar conducted by the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators. This voluntary training would be the first instruction on sex trafficking that he ever received. For the next six years, John Meekins would go on to dedicate much of his time to studying the jailhouse recruitment of women into human trafficking rings.

After that first training seminar, Meekins thought back to earlier parts of his career and the obvious signs of trafficking and abuse he had missed. This prompted him to begin a modest anti-trafficking campaign in his prison in central Florida by putting up posters that defined human trafficking and provided information about how to report it to prison authorities. The administration has allowed his self-styled campaign, but has not officially endorsed it.

A trafficking survivor said that it doesn’t take long for new recruits to begin feeling indebted to their prospective new boss. (Photo/InPublicSafety)
A trafficking survivor said that it doesn’t take long for new recruits to begin feeling indebted to their prospective new boss. (Photo/InPublicSafety)

Luring Victims with Letters

Several weeks after he began his efforts, an inmate approached Meekins and told him that she had been charged with prostitution, but was under the control of a trafficker named Black who was now demanding that she recruit other inmates into their circle. She showed him the first of what would turn out to be dozens of letters, in which Black wrote:

“We need a team of like 8 solid bitches who not on no jealous shit and we cannot go wrong. Baby I know there are hoes in there with you and I know you know real people so make it happen.”

It was the first of many similar cases Meekins has since encountered. Trafficked women often bounce in and out of correctional facilities on prostitution arrests. While in jail, these women can be used as liaisons for human traffickers to handle in-house recruitment. When the new recruit is released, her transition into the trafficking ring will already have been facilitated by mail.

Below is an excerpt of a letter a recruiter sent to her trafficker, also known as a “pimp.” She reports on her enlistment efforts inside:

I talk to another girl about you, her name is [withheld] (Snookie) is her nick name she has blue eyes, long brown hair, she’s about 5’3 or 5’4 cute shape with a “Bubble Butt” so she’s FUN SIZE (insert smiley) she’s into street life, what I have noticed is she stays to her self, she has 10 months left, but you’ll know when you look her up. 4 months from August 13 and I’ll be home I can’t wait (insert smiley) I want us to get a matching outfit & football jerseys baseball hats, and Jordans. I’m ready [name withheld.] Me and you against the world.

John Meekins explained that a letter such as this one would then prompt the trafficker to reach out to the target and entice her into his ring. (Photo/In Public Safety)

Meekins explained that a letter such as this one would then prompt the trafficker to reach out to the target and entice her into his ring. One trafficker’s letter to a prospect, dated November 6, 2012, reads:

“Heard soooo much about you from my lady. I feel as tho I already know you. For sure everything I have heard has been positive. You are more than welcome to join our force. As my lady stated we will come pick you up.” He tells her he has seen her photo on the website of the Department of Corrections (DOC) website. “Think you are a pretty young lady.”

This letter is similar to the ones Black sent to prospective recruits. The letters Meekins collected provided a window into the methodology of human traffickers. Black would ask his targets intimate questions: What were their hopes and dreams when they got out? What did they want? What drugs did they like? Subsequent letters would be filled with promises to fulfil these dreams. They also confirmed the specifics of who would collect them once they were released and what life would be like.

Incentives for Recruits and Recruiters

Jan Miley, a trafficking survivor, explained why inmates recruit other women. Miley spent 11 years under the control of eight different pimps, resulting in more than 20 arrests for prostitution, grand theft auto, and drug possession. Miley knew that even though she was not a recruiter, those that did recruit new girls in her ring would receive better treatment like new clothes, hygienic products, and fewer beatings.

“It makes them happy when you bring new girls around,” Miley told me. “That’s more money in their pocket and then you benefit from it as well, maybe for a short time. But for that little bit of time, they look at you like you did something good. It makes you feel good.”

Tena Dellaca-Hedrick, another trafficking survivor, has also been a victim advocate at a sexual assault treatment center in Indiana since 2009. She said that it doesn’t take long for new recruits to begin feeling indebted to their prospective new boss. From the beginning of their correspondence, the trafficker will start putting money into the woman’s prison commissary account, which allows them to buy products like snacks or hygiene items. Traffickers might contribute money each month —say $10—as a loan.

“What they don’t realize is that $10 comes at an extremely high interest rate,” said Dellaca-Hedrick. When you get out of prison, you might have borrowed $100.  That $100 is now $10,000.” When the women find they can’t pay the money back with a regular job, they fall into the trap of working for the trafficker they are indebted to.

The traffickers often compound debt with romance. When traffickers manipulate a woman into believing she is in love, she can be more accepting of his brutality or the strict rules he imposes. The most important part to understand about these victims, Dellaca-Hedrick said, is that the pattern of psychological torment is particularly acute for those who are “looking for love.”

Targeting the Most Vulnerable

Della-Hedrick’s observations are also apparent to Tomas Lares, who co-founded and chairs the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force. As a collective group, Lares said, the prevalence of abuse and instability in the personal histories of many inmates makes them particularly vulnerable to traffickers who will give them what they want and need.

“Unfortunately, it’s such a breeding ground and such a perfect storm for recruitment because the women are either addicted to a substance, have been arrested multiple times on different charges, or have a history of abuse,” Lares said. “We see the majority of our clients were abused as a child where there is some form of a neglect or physical abuse. Their vulnerability is at its highest.”

Lares cited Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to support his observations. Since many women newly out of jail don’t have easy access to food, shelter or clothing, traffickers can entice them with relative luxuries like “drugs, Wendy’s meals and shopping sprees,” said Lares. Then they can convince them that sex work will be an expedited means of repayment instead of the actual extortion it is.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) website, where mug shots and inmate profiles are publicly available, is a marketing bonanza for traffickers, allowing them to target the most vulnerable women. They can easily pinpoint victims of the ethnic or age-group demographic that appeals to their clientele. A categorical search of the site will turn up women by mug shot, crime, release date, physical coloring, height, weight, ethnicity, and age. “It’s like picking women off a menu,” said Jose Ramirez, a special agent for the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigations, a Florida task force founded in 1978. Ramirez heads the unit that works on trafficking cases in central Florida. He told me that the DOC site makes it easy for traffickers to select the youngest and most attractive girls in the system. Since the problem of trafficking has become more evident over the last decade, the bureau now works with FBI, local agencies, and law enforcement to track and capture human traffickers in the area.

A Joint Mission Against Trafficking

In an effort to combat prison recruitment, Ramirez has joined forces with the American Correctional Association to provide more targeted training for staff. He supports a decrease in public access to the personal information about individual inmates. He also realizes that more is needed beyond addressing these obvious structural flaws, such as psychological screenings for incoming inmates and specific training for medical personnel to identify signs of trafficked women.

The Anti-Trafficking Task Force – “Florida Abolitionists” – is in the earliest phase of creating a program with the University of Central Florida. Their mission is not only to address the systemic problems, but to also educate female jail populations about how to recognize if they are victims of manipulation or sexual exploitation. Until the program is implemented, the task force has been concentrating on training police officers, correctional staff and other professionals who come into regular contact with inmates on how to identify victims.

Among these groups are chaplains who, especially in central Florida, are often very involved with inmates and have proven to be excellent at identifying trafficking victims. Since the task force’s first training session for chaplains back in 2012, the number of reports of both potential victims and recruitment has increased significantly.

However, despite all the independent efforts that trafficking is receiving in the region, the Florida Department of Corrections has not increased its efforts to investigate the reports that have been filed. Ramirez emphasized that without appropriate training for correctional personnel, officials will not even be able to recognize signs of trafficking to report to the bureau.

“It’s not easy to identify someone who might be involved in trafficking in the jails,” Ramirez said. “We have been working on how to develop some kind of training. A lot of stuff is being done across the nation, so I want to find out what kind of tools we’re going to use, and what kind of training to utilize to train all correctional people.”


About the Author: Larson Binzer graduated from New York University in 2016, 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 attends Georgetown University Law. Binzer is a special contributor to In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu.

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