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Street Wise

Pittsburgh experiments with a more humanitarian approach to curtailing prostitution



It's early, before 9 on a Monday morning. The thin woman in the elevator at the Allegheny County Courthouse looks ageless. And that's not a compliment.

The drawn, ashen look of her skin and the bags beneath her eyes, her sharply pulled-back hair with an old weave coming unglued at the hairline -- all give the appearance of someone who could claim 45 years just as convincingly as she could claim 19. Her wedge-heeled boots have a stylish line, but look shabby as they disappear into her long, tight denim skirt and full-length black down coat. She seems distracted, otherworldly. Her eyes don't seem to focus.


The elevator stops at the fifth floor. She makes her way to room 506, Common Pleas Judge Kevin Sasinoski's courtroom. This morning, like every alternate Monday of the month for the past two years, Sasinoski's court holds a specialized docket: Women charged with prostitution will come to this so-called "boutique" courtroom -- one that, like the better-known drug court, is tailored to handling a specific type of offense. Here, defendants will find that justice takes a therapeutic bent.

The woman from the elevator finds a seat and joins in a conversation with a female friend and a male companion. She's twitching, giggling explosively at the wrong moments, and nodding off every now and again.

Long before her turn in front of the judge, Johnna Zacharias approaches the woman from the elevator, brandishing a pamphlet and soothing words like "detox" and "rehab." Wearing an expression of compassionate determination, Zacharias slips the woman a pamphlet, and settles in to watch the proceedings.

The woman from the elevator is the last person called. The judge, who has wished the previous nine defendants a heartfelt "Good luck to you," and waived court costs for those who claimed indigence, asks her a question before her charges can even be announced.

"Are you under the influence of any drugs right now?" the judge asks as the woman stands unsteadily before him, not meeting his gaze.

Sasinoski asks if she'd consent to a drug test, noting that her behavior seems consistent with intoxication. She refuses, explaining that she has smoked marijuana recently and fears a positive result. The judge shrugs off the likelihood of a positive result for marijuana, then asks about crack cocaine. The woman first says it's been a year since she smoked crack, and then says it's been closer to a week. The judge orders the test.

The woman begins weeping, then says she'll consent.

A technician with a sealed testing kit and plastic gloves arrives moments later. The tech returns, minutes later, reporting that the woman claims to be unable to provide a specimen for the urine test. She'll spend the day in custody before she can provide a sample.

The women in Judge Sasinoski's courtroom represent one face of prostitution. Most of them were picked up on the streets, offering intercourse or oral sex for prices as low as $20 to undercover officers. When arrested, most had drugs, especially crack, or drug paraphernalia on them. These are the most visible peddlers of flesh, obvious to everyone.

But thanks to the Internet, there are other faces of prostitution, including some that may never appear in court. They carry out their trade without ever leaving their homes - some of them located in quiet suburbs far from where Sasinoski's defendants were picked up. And along with new forms of prostitution are newer solutions.

Sasinoski's court is one such approach. Another is an increased emphasis on holding johns, and not just prostitutes, responsible for the crime. Pamphlet-wielding advocates like Johnna Zacharias, meanwhile, represent a third option: treating sex workers not as criminals but as survivors.

Though prostitution is sometimes perceived as a victimless crime, police say they take it seriously. In 2004, 345 women and 87 men were arrested in the city for prostitution-related offenses, according to Pittsburgh police spokesperson Tammy Ewin. Figures for December of 2005 are not yet available, but in the first 11 months of last year, 229 women and 63 men were arrested.

And wherever prostitution is found, other crimes are likely to follow. "There are drugs involved in prostitution," says Commander Tom Stangrecki of the city's Narcotics and Vice squad. "There are unsavory characters and disturbances."

Street-walking prostitutes, the most obvious face of the problem, are the ones who draw the ire of citizen-watchdog groups like Lawrenceville United. Stangrecki names Lawrenceville's Butler Street as a hot spot in the city for solicitation, and Lawrenceville United works closely with police to keep tabs on local prostitutes.

"We know who they are," says Tony Ceoffe, the group's executive director.

Not all prostitutes come under the watchful eye of neighborhood groups, however. One of the things that makes the crime so pernicious, in fact, is that many aren't even known to their own neighbors. Take Sally (her name, like those of other prostitutes in this story, has been changed), who has been a prostitute in Pittsburgh for a year-and-a-half. She's not addicted to drugs and doesn't troll the streets. She's part of a new wrinkle in an old problem: Internet technology that also takes prostitutes off the streets -- just not in the way police might hope for.

Sally books her customers through her personal Web site, which is linked to local "hobby" sites -- online clearinghouses for information about local prostitutes. Users share information including rates, phone numbers, Web sites, photographs and Consumer Reports-style reviews on services available, complete with descriptions of positions and acts a prostitute will perform.

The Internet, it turns out, is an easier place to traffic in prostitution than a dark alley: Sally herself replied to an e-mail seeking comment for this article in less than a day.

Prospective customers e-mail her with the time they'd like to meet, how to reach them and, perhaps most importantly, a reference. "If someone wants to see me, they'd better have references," Sally says. Perhaps this is why she has yet to be arrested or abused: The form on her site asks specifically for the name of another prostitute who can vouch for the would-be john.

Sally says online prostitutes have message boards of their own, where the prostitutes compare notes on the clients, posting reviews of their own. If anyone misbehaves, Sally says, word will get out quickly and the man will have trouble booking "dates" in the future.

Sally has a college education, but with two kids, "I wasn't making ends meet." She says the money she earns supports her two school-age children -- both straight-A students, she proudly notes -- and other members of her family. Their father thinks the arrangement is "great," she says, because the kids are taken care of.

Sally doesn't tell her children what she does; they think she's in health care, to explain her erratic hours. But many of her friends know, and her mother does, as well. "She wasn't real happy at first, but then I showed her on the computer how safe I could be," Sally says. "She's like, 'Well, you do take care of your business.'"

Sally says she and other escorts are of a totally different class than what she calls "streetwalkers." "Everybody thinks that we're street people. A lot of times guys just want companionship, they want to talk. I meet people that are politicians, lawyers, doctors. People like that aren't looking for someone on the street."

Police, however, don't draw such distinctions. Commander Stangrecki says that while Internet prostitution is relatively novel, "We try to look at everything, the street prostitution and the Internet." Detectives engage in stings online, just as they do on the street. "If they have a Web site, it works in the same way: The detective gets flagged down by a prostitute."

Whether online or on the streets, he says, prostitution is "still a community problem. If they're operating out of their house they may have johns coming and going at different hours."

It's a community problem, however, that social-service workers and police are trying to find new solutions for.

Lawrenceville United's Tony Ceoffe has seen a new trend on the corners he watches. "Recently, prostitution arrests have been up" in Lawrenceville, he says, "but it's not the prostitutes getting arrested. It's the idiots coming in and buying it."

Indeed, police have directed attention not just to prostitutes but to their clientele. As a Post-Gazette story detailed late last year, city police have recently carried out a series of undercover stings, with officers disguised as prostitutes. The fate of the johns arrested has changed as well.

Male arrestees have found themselves with a new option since 1999, the year Pittsburgh's "johns' school" was started. Johns attend eight six-hour classes, pay $117.50 court costs (if they are city residents) and $230 in fines. They hear from former prostitutes and learn about the consequences of their actions. If they wish, they can have their records expunged after completing the course.

"We're not after the men; it's equal justice," says Sgt. Lavonnie Bickerstaff, who runs the school. "If you're out there looking to buy sex and you run into a police officer, it's because you're out there participating in a crime."

"I think for a long time there was a perception that the customers were not being treated as aggressively as the providers," says Mike Manko, spokesman for the district attorney's office. "That trend started to go away a couple years ago with the advent of the johns' school."

And thanks in no small part to the efforts of Norma Hotaling, johns aren't the only ones being counseled these days.

A former prostitute in San Francisco, Hotaling had done her share of time. But time is all it was: The domestic abuse and depression that led to her drug addiction and prostitution were never addressed. She says that in most of the country now, that's what prostitutes are faced with in jail.

But back in 1989, Hotaling decided that she'd turn her jail time into something positive. She turned herself in on some outstanding prostitution warrants, detoxed herself from heroin and resolved to stay off the streets. In 1992, she began the SAGE -- Stand Against Global Exploitation -- Project. With the help of a therapist, she realized that the trauma leading up to a life in the sex industry was something that was almost never addressed, not in therapy or by any outreach groups working with prostitutes.

"For all my life I had gotten messages that I was bad, that I was uncontrollable, that I was a whore and a bad person," she says. "With SAGE, we set out to do what we needed to do. We really believe it's a human-rights issue -- everything was taken away by somebody else but blamed on us. We have a right to have back everything that was taken from us." A large part of SAGE's mission is outreach and social education aimed at re-educating sex workers and stamping out supply and demand.

While Hotaling herself was a drug-addicted street prostitute, she says that SAGE sees many women who find themselves trapped, unexpectedly, after dabbling in Internet prostitution -- women who don't fit the stereotype of the desperate junkie out for a fix.

"A lot of women get trapped into that whole life of just working out of their living room. Women get trapped and they can't get out." Internet prostitution may seem less pernicious, says Hotaling, but it still encourages men -- and women -- to think of women are sexual commodities.

As a result, she says, whether conducted on the streets or on the Internet, prostitution is "a lifestyle that I have not seen many women easily transition from."

"What's important for people to recognize is that these people are somebody's child, somebody's mother," Johnna Zacharias says of her clients. Sitting in her chilly, small South Side office festooned with positive sayings and Alcoholics Anonymous posters, she laments that prostitutes "are just so forgotten about."

Zacharias is the founder of and counselor at PRIDE -- Program for Reintegration and Development and Empowerment of Exploited Individuals. An outpatient program for convicted prostitutes with drug or alcohol problems and no violent offenses, PRIDE is part of White Deer Run/Cove Forge Behavioral Health and has been underway for just under one year.

The program is a replication of Hotaling's SAGE Project, and Zacharias trained with Hotaling before starting PRIDE. The trend of treating prostitutes as victims of trauma is catching on the world over -- Hotaling notes outreach programs in Thailand, and johns' schools in Korea.

"We treat the lifestyle of prostitution, not just the action," Zacharias says. That means PRIDE patients learn life skills like parenting, and how to access services like housing assistance.

At the discretion of the prosecutor, a prostitute can go here, rather than jail. One afternoon a week, the women (so far, no men have been sentenced to the program) meet for PRIDE's support groups and post-traumatic stress education. To graduate, patients must complete classes dealing with post-traumatic stress, address their drug or alcohol problem, and either have a job or be enrolled in school. They submit to urine tests at meetings. During the yearlong program, the participants are also on probation, and can be incarcerated if they violate those terms or any others imposed by the judge. Those in the program also have access to a psychiatrist, and a 24-hour mental-health hotline.

PRIDE workers, including Zacharias, are volunteers. In a bit of poetic justice, other program expenses are financed through the $230 fines paid by convicted johns.

This year, about 25 women have been sentenced to the program. Three are preparing to graduate at the end of January.

The women are different ages and races, and come from different backgrounds, but they have a lot in common. "The number-one challenge that the women face is addiction," Zacharias says. But the drug abuse itself is almost always a symptom of an even deeper problem. "Each of the women has faced some sort of trauma, and it's significant trauma," says Zacharias. While she closely guards the specifics of each woman's case, she says the traumas are physical, emotional and sexual -- and that in every case, the problems began early in life.

"Internally they set up this protection system -- they stop feeling. They start after it all comes rushing back."

But the walls are lowered when a handful of her counselees gather in the office one afternoon during the holidays. The women sit around a table together, snacking on salt-and-vinegar potato chips.

Michelle says a boyfriend introduced her to crack when she was about 19. "I did whatever for him because I was so in love with him. I didn't know what I was getting into." At first, she says, she could take it or leave it, preferring alcohol or marijuana. But as her life spun out of control, her addiction did, too.

After her boyfriend became abusive, Michelle moved back in with her mother. But her mother's live-in boyfriend tried having sex with her, she says, so she left again.

"My mom put me out, but he was still there," she says. Within months, her mother had died, and she'd lost custody of her children.

"I'm homeless, I didn't have any friends. One day I decided, let me try this, the drug he had introduced me to, to numb the pain," Michelle said. "I started spending all my money up on it. After my mom died, I gave up on life. I had to start prostituting to survive. I would try to psych myself out: I needed money for clothes, hygiene products. But as soon as I got the money, it went to drugs."

She was arrested for prostitution and gave up crack for a while, but relapsed into both.

"You're so numbed up, you're so high, there ain't no fear," says Michelle. "I almost got killed three times. A man held a gun against my head and forced me to perform oral sex on him," she says. Her voice is soft and has little intonation, as if she's reciting an unholy scripture. "I'm crying and praying and he said, 'Somebody must be praying for you, because I can't kill you.' He threw me out of the car and told me if I turned around he was gonna blow my head off.

"I done hit rock bottom to the lowest," she said. "I lost hope in myself and everybody else."

"All the time that you're using drugs, the only thing that matters is getting high," says Kim, another PRIDE participant. "Then you start to realize, 'Dag, I got these kids longing for a mother.' Then you come into their life after being out of their life for years." Kim says she began using when her children were infants, and her mother has custody of them now. Despite major strides she's making in her life, she still has to cede authority to the kids' grandmother. It's frustrating, she says, but "You have to gain all that back."

Stormy, who is also in the program, says she began living in group homes at the age of 10, and the uncertainty of not knowing where she might sleep any given night helped start her long dance with crack cocaine. "I had a tendency to have an up drug in my life," she says. "If you never went to sleep, you didn't have to worry about where you were going to stay."

By the time the women turned to prostitution, then, they'd already deadened themselves to the emotions that would ordinarily prevent a woman from contemplating it.

"You don't know whose car you're getting in," Kim says. "You stand on a corner from sunup to sundown. Soon as I flag down a john, he'll say what he wants." She says johns either wanted oral sex or sex, which could net up to $50. "He can say, 'I only got $20.' But if you want to get high. ... It's not like we're courtin', we're going on a date or here baby, how much do you need. You'll do anything for that high."

"It's hard for us to speak about what's inside us because we've been numbing for so long, putting it into a category of 'who cares'?" says Stormy.

In fact, for more than half of the women directed to PRIDE, it has proven impossible to speak about what's inside them. Of the 25 women sentenced to PRIDE in its first year, 14 have dropped out -- having either fallen into their old ways or simply stopped showing up.

Most patients entering traditional drug or alcohol rehabilitation programs will relapse -- typically in any treatment model, one-third recover completely, one-third relapse but attempt to return to recovery, and one-third completely fail to recover. But PRIDE is different, because it treats an entire lifestyle, and not just one or two symptoms.

"Certainly you're discouraged when you look at drug and alcohol [relapse] numbers," Zacharias says. "If you help just 10 or 20 percent of the people to go on in recovery, you're thrilled. But to the other 80 percent, you've made some impression. The small changes are worth it. They're very proud of the progress they've made."

And even if patients return to some of their old ways, they've got new knowledge that can't be taken from them, things like life skills or STI (sexually transmitted infection) education, that may go a long way toward keeping their families or dependents safe.

"People think recovery should be a one-shot deal," she says. "The reality is many of these women are dealing with a 20-year history."

It's a nudge from the judge that directs women toward PRIDE in the first place, but the women who are still in the program are mostly optimistic about their futures. This, despite the myriad frustrations of rejoining society. How do you get a driver's license, for example, if you've never had another form of ID? "They're still going to have to access services," says Zacharias. "When they leave here, they aren't going to have jobs as engineers."

The women will likely be in low-paying jobs that are willing to hire someone with a criminal history. But without a drug habit to feed, the money they make will be their own -- unlike the fast, easy-come-easy-go cash of tricking for drugs.

"You wake up broke, you go to bed broke," says Stormy. "The PRIDE program is supposed to help you to rebuild your life," she says, looking forward to a modest future with financial security and having her children back in her life. "I was very angry," she says of being sentenced to PRIDE. While she did have a drug problem, she wasn't convicted of any drug offenses, so she was annoyed to be forced to face her substance abuse. "But as time went on, I thanked God."

"In my past, when I went to programs, when it came to for me to open up, get deep down gut honest, I was never able to do that," says Michelle. "I felt shameful." She had never attended a program just for former sex workers, full of people who knew what she'd gone through. She'd never been to a program like PRIDE. "Just the way I chased that drug, I come here."

"They've been continually disappointed and betrayed," Zacharias says. "They have to be given that opportunity to trust. Society doesn't step in and say, 'Wait, this is wrong, why do we allow this to happen?'"

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