SWOP Behind Bars

North America and Caribbean Regional Correspondent

“The sex worker community has really stepped up,” says Alex Andrews when referring to the success of SWOP Behind Bars, which launched in late April of 2016.  “It’s so awesome to see sex workers do tangible things like donating a book to an incarcerated sex worker and writing a letter. I mean that’s a lost art! And to really, really step up through social media and talk about incarceration and criminal justice reform and talk about all the things we’ve been talking about for a long time but without the involvement of the incarcerated population.”

SWOP Behind Bars exists under the red umbrella of SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) USA. It is based out of Florida but is currently servicing women in nine states and that number is quickly growing. Andrews says that, “We wanted to create a community within the prison system for sex workers for when they get out and for while they are there. We wanted to create pen pal situations, we wanted to send a newsletter in and we wanted them to know that there were people on the outside fighting for decriminalization who want to support them in any way they could.”

What SWOP Behind Bars discovered was that many women incarcerated for sex work related charges did not know anything about the sex workers’ rights movement. “It’s really been quite a learning experience for us,” says Andrews. “It really took us back to the beginning of the movement.” As a result, SWOP Behind Bars has decided that they will ask three sex workers who are incarcerated to be on their advisory board of directors. “We want them to directly advise us on how to proceed so we can make sure we are meeting the needs they say they want and not just the ones that we think that they want,” says Andrews.

Like any project that is urgently needed, Andrews says SWOP Behind Bars, “just grew and people started pitching in. And next thing you know it is what it is now.” When considering some of the issues incarcerated women face, Andrews says, “They have no sense of community, they have no contact with the outside world. There are no resources available to women in the prison systems and women and trans women are subject to more abuse, discrimination and stigmatisation if they have been involved in the sex trade. The only access they have to the outside world is our newsletter and the pen pals we set them up with.”

Another pressing issue Andrews highlights is post incarceration housing and “a constant request for clothing upon release. Women don’t have anything to wear—many are released into rehab wearing their prison blues. Today we had our first incarcerated sex worker that went to a work release center. I have a colleague taking her clothes and another board member is sending clothing through the mail.”

Andrews says that they are already beginning to see the success of peer support and the success of harm reduction approaches.  “Our last newsletter did a large segment on harm reduction,” she says, “because some of the letters we received from some of the ladies were requesting substance abuse and recovery material. We had a woman who was leading yoga classes inside the Lowell Prison and we sent her a book on how yoga can help with trauma and recovery and now she’s started a self-facilitated meeting where they talk about substance abuse and how they’re going to stay sober when they get out. They’re creating their own community, which is what we do as sex workers, right? We create our own community.”

Andrews herself was a fulltime sex worker from 1984 to 1998. She retired after a cycle of going to jail and not being able to get out of the criminal justice system. After Amnesty International released their policy on the protection of sex workers’ rights, Andrews says “I dove in head first doing activism. I’ve been following SWOP for several years but I didn’t think decriminalisation was something that was going to be taken seriously. Having been arrested and charged and on probation for prostitution related charges, it’s a heavy load, it’s difficult to find work. I was very lucky that I had beauty school and I want to use every ounce of my privilege to help some of these other ladies.”

SWOP Behind Bars did a presentation at The Desiree Alliance Conference and hosted a letter writing campaign where they had everyone send “cards and letters and all kinds of stuff to many of women on our list.”  The response, says Andrews,  “was overwhelming.” She says she is elated, excited and scared going forward because, “I really want to make sure that we can follow through and provide the outside community support these ladies are going to need when they are released from prison.”

SWOP Behind Bars also just discovered that there is an email system within certain jails and prisons that allows emails to go in and gives prisoners the opportunity to send and receive emails. They used this system to communicate with several women who were caught up in a sting (see the #PascoSting hashtag on Twitter for details) and offer them direct support and immediate presence, another initiative they wish to implement with more regularity. “The email system provided by the jails costs about the same as a sending a regular letter,” says Andrews, who was able to connect with one of the women caught up in the Pasco sting three times on the day she spoke with NSWP.

Andrews thanks “the entire sex work community for stepping up like they have and participating and being as excited as I am” and says that SWOP Behind Bars is really witnessing an “opportunity to make a difference when incarcerated sex workers are released as well as an opportunity to put the message out there to people who are working in prisons and jails and let them know the harm that is caused by criminalising sex work.”

As Andrews says, “handcuffs are not rescue” and she is confident that “the initiative is going to grow legs in the sex worker community worldwide.”