When Juana got out of a Florida prison last October, the state gave her a $50 gift card and a bus ticket. They offered no help finding a job, securing shelter or contacting her two children, who were living with an adoptive family in Ohio. After being locked away for eight years, Juana was almost totally disconnected from the outside world. Then she was thrust back into it.
Or she would have been totally disconnected if SWOP Behind Bars hadn’t gotten her a cellphone.
SWOP Behind Bars is a peer-led organization founded in October 2016. It’s a chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project, a national social justice organization which advocates for the human rights of sex workers and the decriminalization of sex work. Alex Andrews, co-founder of SWOP Behind Bars and North American Representative for the Global Network for Sex Worker Projects (NSWP), worked as a sex worker herself for 15 years as a stripper, phone sex worker, and escort before she quit in 1998, partly because of multiple arrests and incarceration. After she quit, she wanted to help women in prison who have a history in the commercial sex trade. SWOP Behind Bars provides a community and concrete aid when they’re released, from clothing and shoes to stamped envelopes, notebooks and hygiene products. In a new program, the women also get cellphones.
The cellphone initiative is in its early experimental stages, according to Andrews. It’s an idea borne of necessity.
“One of the things that we found that was most difficult was connecting with women once they got out,” Andrews said. “Because they didn’t have access to technology, a lot of time they would come out of prison and we wouldn’t hear from them for more than a week or two because they didn’t have access to email, they didn’t have access to a lot of the things we take for granted.”
Connecting women to resources quickly after leaving prison is crucial. “When you’re in prison and you get out and you don’t have any money, you’re almost forced back into sex work. Which may not be where these women want to be, because it does put them at risk for rearrest,” Andrews said.
She calls this “state-sponsored trafficking.” Women are cut off from their families and released without resources for finding jobs, getting an education or pursuing a GED. Sex work is effectively the only way many of them have to make money.
A cellphone opens up other options, both professional and personal. Juana—who talked to me by phone—had been in prison for eight years, and had never used a cellphone. She was struggling to learn its features, and finding Wi-Fi has been a challenge
Nonetheless, it’s been a huge help. She has done some sex work since her release, she admitted reticently, but she’d also used a job-searching app to find work at a laundromat—a good fit since she’d done ironing in prison. She’s figured out how to play music on her phone too. She’s especially a fan of Christian music and Kendrick Lamar.
Perhaps most importantly, the phone has enabled Juana to stay in touch with her children. Her youngest was born while Juana was in jail. “They took him away as soon as he was born,” she said. Now she talks to them regularly on the phone, and she’s friends with them on Facebook, though she’s still learning to navigate the social network.
Finding cheap, reliable phone service nationwide has been tricky, Andrews says. Many services aren’t set up to allow people to purchase phones for others, and she’d like to buy 90 days of service at a time, rather than the usual 30-day package. Most women coming out of prison aren’t in a position to start paying for their own phone after only a month on the outside. For the moment, Andrews has settled on Straight Talk, a program that’s offered through Wal-Mart and gets good service even in rural areas. SWOP can send out refurbished iPhone 5S with 30 days of service for around $100 each. The organization is accepting donations of used smart phones to help expand the program and lower costs.
Ex-prisoners face a huge number of hurdles, Andrews says, “Having someone to talk to when you get out, it’s the support that comes through our networks, those are the things that make SWOP Behind Bars a success.”
People who come out of prison should be able to search for jobs. They should be able to talk to their children. And if they can listen to Kendrick Lamar, well, that’s a good thing too.