The Damning Language of Salvation

Mar 21, 2014 • Crime, Freedom, Legal, Sex Industry, Trans

Project ROSE is unconstitutional

Ten months ago, Monica Jones was arrested in Arizona for something Phoenix police call “manifesting” prostitution. The city’s municipal code says someone is “manifesting prostitution” if that person is “in a public place, a place open to public view or in a motor vehicle on a public roadway and manifests an intent to commit or solicit an act of prostitution.” Intent in Phoenix can look like a number of things, the code admits, and gives examples: calling to or otherwise engaging other people in the street, stopping people on the street, hailing cars, waving at cars, making “any other bodily gesture” toward cars, asking whether another person is a police officer, looking around for “articles that would identify a police officer” on a person or requesting the touching of genitals or breasts.

Basically, someone participating in shock jock Tom Leykis’ “flash Fridays” (where people drive with their headlights on and women, who listen to the show and are so inclined, flash them) is just as likely to be considered to be “manifesting” as a sex worker in the Phoenix equivalent of Western Avenue. But this is more than a wacky law that gives law enforcement a wide margin to interpret pedestrian behavior — in practice, it’s effectively turned socioeconomic status, race, and gender identity into evidence. If you’re homeless, or a person of color — and especially if you’re trans — it doesn’t matter if you’re walking to Sunday mass. Your very existence is a manifestation of prostitution, and you’re fair game to get picked up.

To make this palatable, since 2011 Phoenix law enforcement has been working in tandem with an Arizona State University program that “helps” sex workers (or people that police think are sex workers) called Project ROSE, which stands for Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation. I put “helps” in quotes because I don’t see anything helpful about being handcuffed and detained without being charged, and subsequently being forced to speak to prosecutors without an attorney present — even if all this happens in a nice church and social workers come along claiming to understand what I’m feeling. I’m putting “helps” in quotes because I want to get across that when it comes to sex work, people too often use salvation language and symbols to sugar-coat flagrant violations of civil liberties.

In a piece for RH Reality Check, Melissa Gira Grant elaborated on this “help”:

Al Jazeera reports that since the program began, more than 350 people detained on prostitution-related offenses have been brought to Project ROSE. Only 30 percent complete the program, meaning that the majority will face mandatory minimum penalties for prostitution: In the City of Phoenix, that’s 15 days in jail for a first conviction, 30 days for a second conviction, and 60 days for a third conviction. On subsequent convictions, the State of Arizona considers the offense a felony, with a mandatory minimum of 180 days in jail, a measure signed into law by former Gov. Janet Napolitano in 2006.

[ … ] Though they are threatened with criminal charges, there is no public defender on site to advise them of their rights, only a prosecutor. It’s prosecutors who tell those detained that their prostitution-related charges will not be filed if they comply with the program’s requirement to entering the prostitution diversion program, which is operated by Catholic Charities of Arizona and is called DIGNITY. “Catholic Charities Community Services recognizes prostituted women as victims of sex trafficking,” DIGNITY’s program materials state, “and helps them to escape ‘the life’ through DIGNITY (Developing Individual Growth and New Independence Through Yourself).” The 36-hour program provides “self exploration and education to develop self esteem and give hope.”

That the program doesn’t see the difference between sex work and sex trafficking is useful: hope and self-esteem, after all, don’t do much for people who engage in sex work to pay for rent, groceries, tuition, health care for themselves and/or their families and other needs. Coercion exists in sex work, but many people have turned to sex work simply to make a living wage at a time when 3.8 million Americans work for or below minimum wage — a wage that, since being implemented seven years ago, has lost over 12 percent of its value as a result of inflation.

In Arizona, 1.47 million workers were paid hourly rate in 2012 and 68,000 of them received minimum wage or less ($7.80 per hour, $4.80 for workers who receive tips). Last year, Forbes listed Phoenix as having a cost of living that is 1.5 percent above the national average. It’s hard to get by and you can’t pay the bills with hope and self-esteem. Worse, initiatives that funnel people into the legal system don’t do anything to deter sex work; convictions serve only to permanently remove those convicted from access to jobs outside the industry.

Last year, Monica Jones and many others found themselves in handcuffs at Bethany Bible Church. Those who didn’t have a record were given the option to take part one the Project ROSE diversion program, which, if completed, would allow them to go on with their lives without a record. Those who had a record of engaging in sex work or were found carrying a weapon or drugs were denied this option. For them awaited a court summons. Most people in this situation don’t fight back. But then, most people are not Monica Jones.

Jones is a former sex worker and a student at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work who’s spoken out against Project ROSE multiple times since its inception. The day before she was arrested, Jones protested the raids targeting sex workers in Phoenix. The founder of Project ROSE, Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, is a tenured professor at Arizona State and knows Jones — the two of them once debated the program.

But Jones is also a trans woman of color, which to Phoenix police is all the intent required to “manifest prostitution.” When she accepted a ride from an undercover cop to a favorite haunt, she might as well have been walking around with a mattress strapped to her back bearing the words “NO MONEY NO HONEY.” The police report says Jones offered the detective sexual services, which Jones denies. It backs up Jones’ claim that she was repeatedly misgendered and harassed by officers: the report refers to her using male pronouns. More egregiously, Jones says that during the incident, police repeatedly called her “it” even though her legal identification clearly lists her as female.

When the officers threatened to take her to jail — a threat with serious implications to a trans woman whose gender identity is not recognized — Jones accepted being taken to Bethany Bible Church instead. Once there, however, Jones wasn’t given the option of a diversion program because she’s been convicted of sex work previously. That’s another aspect of the Project ROSE program that doesn’t make sense — “help” only comes once. But even then, it’s too late, according to founder Roe-Sepowitz. She believes that sex work changes the composition of a human being. “Once you’ve prostituted you can never not have prostituted,” Vice quotes her. “Having that many body parts in your body parts, having that many body fluids near you and doing things that are freaky and weird really messes up your ideas of what a relationship looks like, and intimacy.”

Jones had already sat through the presentations provided as part of Project ROSE’s DIGNITY program in 2008. The presentations that make up the hope- and self-esteem-building program run eight hours per day, without breaks for food — or accommodation for classes, children or anything else a program participant may have going on in his or her life. Jones made it clear from the beginning that she didn’t agree with the view that all sex workers were coerced into commercial sex or engaging in it to pay for a drug habit.

“I’m doing it because the money is good, and I can make my own hours, and I’m going to school,” she told them. Program organizers tried to convince her she had “battered women syndrome,” but Jones didn’t back down from her belief that she has a right to her own body. Her views resulted in early dismissal from DIGNITY.

The Project ROSE site laments the invisibility of sex workers in order to get support for its “rescue” efforts. But there, in one of their own programs, they stamped a sex worker with a passing grade just to keep her from coming back and telling her story — that sex work isn’t always trafficking or the result of drug addiction — to other sex workers.

In May, 2013, when she was detained this last time, Jones was not read her Miranda rights. She was denied a phone call. When she asked to speak to an attorney, Project ROSE organizers took her to a prosecutor. When she said she wanted a public defender, they told Jones there were no public defenders on the premises. This is a matter of policy for Project ROSE, and a loophole for Phoenix law enforcement: “Clients at Project ROSE do not require legal representation, as they are not under arrest,” says one of their fact sheets. But despite not being under arrest, people cuffed, not allowed to leave and threatened with jail time.

At Bethany Bible Church, organizers and members of law enforcement tried to get her to confess to the charge. Jones didn’t. In August, she received a summons to court. She’d been charged.

Monica Jones is rare in that she is fighting back. As an activist with Sex Worker’s Outreach Project (SWOP) Phoenix, she has received more support and media attention than the vast majority of people who face such charges. Fear of being outed as a sex worker is one of the main reasons that people facing similar charges don’t fight back. Another is lack of access to legal assistance.

“Stigma of prostitution prevents folks from challenging charges,” tweeted Audacia Ray, founder of the sex workers rights activism group Red Umbrella Project. “Judges and lawyers often coercive, tell people they will lose if they fight.”

Jones decided to go for it. She pled not guilty.

“In a case like this relating to a charge of ‘manifestation’ or any other prostitution related charge — from the prosecution’s point of view — it’s supposed to be a simple in and out of the court,” Jones said in an interview with the blog A Kiss for Gabriela. “What normally happens is that there is the defendant, a public defender, the prosecutor and the judge and the defendant is rushed through, signs some papers and pleads guilty because they have no real option for justice. So people are forced through the system with no one to help them. It’s a dirty little secret of what is happening to so many people under these laws and my ongoing case is bringing to light this injustice.”

The Monday before she was due to appear in court, representatives with SWOP Phoenix and Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP) spoke before the UN Human Rights Committee about the United States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, elaborating on law enforcement and anti-trafficking initiatives that have been shown to primarily target the poor, people of color, and transgender individuals.

Talking to the Nation, Darby Hickey of the BPPP said it best: “We chose to highlight what has been happening in Phoenix because it is emblematic of the rights violations that happen around the country — and to a certain extent around the world — under criminalization of sex work.” This overbroad statute and extensive profiling by Phoenix law enforcement illustrates “how anti-prostitution laws are used to police who is a ‘legitimate’ person who can enjoy public space.”

When Jones’ case finally came to court a week ago, officials were forced to move to another courtroom after more than forty people showed up to support her — including the American Civil Liberties Union. The first move of Jones’ defense was to file a motion to constitutionally challenge the “manifestation” statute under which she was arrested. This led to a postponement of the trial until April 11, 2014.

UPDATE: In a crowded Phoenix municipal courtroom on the morning of April 11, Judge Hercules Dellas found the 29-year-old activist guilty based solely on the statements of the police officer who targeted her.

On May 14, Jones announced that she was appealing. On August 5, Jones filed an appeal for wrongful conviction, with support from attorneys J. Cabou, Alexis Danneman and Chase Strangio of the American Civil Liberties Union. Also present to lend her support was Orange Is The New Black star, Laverne Cox.

Header image by Clyde Robinson.