Tag Archive: Incarceration

The Criminalization of Sex Work: Are Sex Workers Also Sex Offenders?

In New Orleans,  prostitutes (also known as sex workers, a term that encompasses various forms of sexual favors or acts traded for money, shelter, or other resources/necessities) are not just being charged by the District Attorney’s office with simple solicitation (a misdemeanor) but crimes against nature. Crimes against Nature is a felony charge that provides up to five years in prison, in addition the legislature mandates that the accused register as a sex offender. The legislative intent was to prosecute child molesters, but it is used to prosecute primarily street-based sex workers, a population already destitute and struggling to survive in a city with few public health and anti-poverty resources. The local Police Department and District Attorney’s office have interpreted the statutory phrase “unnatural copulation” to mean anal or oral sex.

What is really interesting is that the arresting officer has the discretion to charge either simple solicitation or crimes against nature and it unclear whether the officers have a protocol for which to charge. One community organization that advocates for the health and wellness needs of under-served women, Women with a Vision, sees these arbitrary prosecutions as part of an overall scheme to prosecute non-violent crimes at a greater intensity than violent crimes, which they see as symptomatic of the criminalization of poverty. Another community organization that advocates for formerly incarcerated persons alleges that only five percent of people held in Orleans Parish Prison are there for violent crimes, but a majority are in there for non-violent offenses, like traffic or municipal violations.

Many lawyers and the media, print and online,  have found out what is happening in New Orleans and are doing all they can to change the interpretation of this statute, as well as support community organizations trying to change its enforcement and the lives of those most affected by it. Yet, despite of these ongoing efforts, people are still prosecuted under the crimes against nature statute. Hopefully, this will make us think twice when we read about a “Sex Offender” in our neighborhood.

Incarceration: The Female Experience

The TLC show “Cellblock 6: Female Lockup” is a documentary-reality show which follows the female inmates in Gwinnett County Jail in Gwinnett County, Georgia. The show profiles various aspects of the incarceration experience from booking to release, but the most pervasive theme is the importance of the female bond. This show made me rethink images of prison scenes in movies where new inmates join gangs and make alliances for their own protection in a dog-eat-dog jail. The women in Gwinnett County are quick to help newcomers. In the episode entitled “Guilty… So You Think”, Tiffany, 24 year old pregnant mother of two, sits down with her new cellmate, Jo Ellen, and engages in a therapy-like session. Tiffany shares with her useful information on the practicalities of jail life and also how to adjust emotionally to her new life. These women, both mothers, bond over their love for their family. Later, Tiffany shows Jo Ellen how to do research information on her case in the jail’s law library.

Other inmates work together to help Deatrah, a fellow inmate, celebrate her birthday. The women surprise her with cards and a birthday cake which was made from crushed cookies and candy bars that had been repurposed to create a chocolate cake. Deatrah is later moved to tears when she receives a birthday card from her parents. Claiming that if she had only listened to her parents she would not have ended up in prison, she shares her story. Deatrah says that as a young woman she enrolled in college and was doing well but began to struggle with her sexuality. Fearing that her highly religious family would not accept her, she turned to drinking and developed an alcohol problem. After failing out of school, Deatrah spiraled out of control and was eventually arrested for armed robbery. At her hearing, Deatrah pled guilty claiming that it was important to her that she was not a liar. As a lesbian in jail, Deatrah has substantially more issues to deal with. Although a common victim of rumors and gossip amongst her fellow inmates, Deatrah stated that her main concern is with the staff. According to the Handbook of the Georgia Department of Corrections,  (pg. 27), romance between inmates is a strictly forbidden and  punishable offense. Deatrah claimed not to be romantically involved with anyone in jail but she fears being subjected to solitary confinement based on rumors or at the whim of a guard due to her openness about her homosexuality.

Of the seven women profiled in this episode, five of them have children. This is a frequent topic of conversation among the women who share memories and console one another since they miss their children and want to be part of their lives. Some women tell their children they are incarcerated, some lie to them, and others have children that are far too young to understand. None of them want their children to see them in jail, and most refuse to let their children visit.

Do not be fooled. This is not a white collar prison or a minimum security jail. According to the show, Gwinnett County Jail houses everyone from murders to parole violators. In this tightly-run ship, women spend 20 hours locked in their cells each day. Yet, these women do not show toughened exteriors but a supportive network for each other and those who enter the walls of Gwinnett County Jail. These women depend on each other to survive this highly emotional experience, and although it most probably exists, there are no traces of bickering or “cat fights.” Above all else, these women have learned to survive through the bonds of sisterhood.

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