The Battle Against Sexual Exploitation, Human Trafficking and Incarceration

As someone who works with incarcerated women and believes strongly in second chances, the New Year started off with good news. Cyntoia Brown was granted clemency by the governor of Tennessee. If you’re unfamiliar with Cyntoia’s story, here’s what happened. At the age of 16, Cyntoia was convicted of murdering a man 30 years her senior who bought her for sex. She was tried as an adult and sentenced to 51-years in prison. Thankfully, juvenile sentencing guidelines in Tennessee have changed since her conviction, and the governor has recognized the extraordinary steps Cyntoia has taken in prison to transform her life. For these reasons, she’s getting a second chance. But this story can’t end here. We need to address the elephant in the room and there’s no better time to do that than on Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

Whenever I write a blog that links to an awareness day, I’m overwhelmed by the question “How did we get here?” I mean how upside down is our world that something as deplorable as human trafficking is still such a massive and global issue? Consider this: the International Labour Organization estimates there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally. I still can’t fully wrap my head around that figure. It’s a shameful number that is screaming for a worldwide call to action. As is this public service announcement I saw in a bathroom in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Human Trafficking Is a Continuous Cycle

The textbook definition of human trafficking reads like this: the action or practice of illegally transporting people from one country or area to another, typically for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation. And believe it or not, as crazy as this sounds, incarcerated women are prey for traffickers. A Guardian/Observer investigation found that U.S. jailhouses and prison cells are routinely used as recruiting grounds by pimps and sex buyers. Through the exploitation of holes in the criminal justice system, predators target incarcerated women, promising them love and security after release. But their intention is really to trap them in a continued cycle of criminalization and exploitation.

We need to understand that women who are vulnerable to trafficking have come from childhoods that often include broken homes, alcohol and drug addiction, poor self-esteem, domestic violence and sexual abuse. It starts early, well before the age of 10-years-old. Young girls are exploited in the sex trade, then are tasked with “recruiting” other girls and boys into the trade. They are threatened, beaten and starved if they fail to comply with their predator’s wishes. A life spent sexually abused, used, beaten and disrespected without any financial means whatsoever all lead to desperate acts to survive. I think you know what comes next: arrests, convictions, incarceration, judgment and scorn. These are lives without any light, or hope. It’s just darkness. This way of life becomes all they know, which means the cycle continues in prison and after release. Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz (see bio) spoke last year at our TEDx event at Arizona Department of Corrections and shared her research working with victims of trafficking, as well as a recovery program they’ve introduced to help women heal from these experiences. Most memorable was Dominique asking all of us to examine our own bias as we look, notice and judge people whose experiences we really don’t know or even understand. Here’s a good example of why that’s so important.

My colleague, Erica Munoz who is incarcerated at Perryville, gave one of most compelling TEDx talks of the day. She addressed the issue of sexual abuse and prostitution head on in a presentation titled, Not Me Anymore. She spoke candidly about how a feeling of brokenness and survival led her down a dark path of selling her own body. A path that began at 7-years-old, when home molestation began. Her difficult and unimaginable journey is now one of redemption, resilience and inspiration. And the reason her continuous transformation is possible is because she was given the opportunity and the support needed (empathy, education and job training) to change. When this happens, people begin to really see their worth and place in the world. And with that realization comes healing and they can rebuild their lives. Ironically, she found her hope in prison.

I really believe that all of us have a responsibility to be the light in someone’s life. Perhaps it’s called humanKIND for a reason. I heard once that when we meet someone who is struggling or broken or in great emotional pain, we have three choices: ignore it, exploit it for our own personal gratification, or help. Just imagine what our world would be like today if we all cast judgement aside and started to extend hands to society’s most vulnerable. Let’s start now. As Erica said, “Channel the love, courage, strength and freedom within ourselves and give to someone else the hope to find it in themselves.”

What Can We Do?

Addressing human trafficking comes down to several things: countries need to prioritize the funding of prevention techniques (including online, which is where predators prey) and protection for victims. We also need stronger criminal justice reform that aims to rehabilitate NOT just punish men and women for their crimes. Upon release, every person needs to walk out those prison gates emotionally and mentally stronger than when they went in–if they don’t, society has failed them.

Incarceration with rehabilitation looks like this: a robust and personalized program that includes addiction treatment, mental health counseling, life skills management, education, training, and after-release mentoring, housing and job and career opportunities. (In my recent blog on Examining Incarceration & Addiction, I interviewed formerly incarcerated women who have successfully re-entered society thanks to support programs and services provided by the non-profit organization Arouet Foundation). Believe me, this is a worthwhile investment for society to make because the end results are reduced recidivism, stronger communities, and the ability for families to rebuild–to say nothing of the economic benefits that come with helping people become their best selves.

I read once that the victims of human trafficking are often left voiceless and completely unseen by society. We can change this if we work together and appeal to our government to make smart changes through funding and legislative efforts. Every human being who’s been stigmatized, traumatized and disempowered deserves to be heard, and when they aren’t or they’re unable to raise their voices, we need to amplify ours on their behalf.

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