STREET SEX: Part 5 In search of prostitute rehabilitation

Why has it taken a month to present the story about how street prostitutes are helped to escape ‘the life’? You may be as surprised as we are by the answer …

Under the Portland’s “Project 57”, when a street prostitute is arrested, they go to jail – but not for long. They stay only until their arraigned or bailed out.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Although popular with affected residents and business owners, both Mayor Tom Potter and Commissioner Randy Leonard say the Prostitution-free Zone (PFZ) and Drug-free Zone ordinances were ineffective and unfair.

“I haven’t been in favor of the ordinances,” Leonard tells us after the ordinances expired. “Even if they are constitutional, I don’t think they solve the problem. When we designate an area to be an exclusion zone, prostitutes move to another area.”

A better idea is to provide treatment, Leonard says. “Our Project 57, in which we rent 57 jail beds from the county to hold chronic offenders, has reduced recidivism among the top 300 repeat offenders by 71%.

Project 57 primer
“Project 57” was established to keep crime offenders, who pose the greatest threat to public safety, in jail.

Prior to Project 57, those arrested, were given citations-in-lieu of custody (not unlike a traffic ticket), released, and then expected to appear voluntarily for their scheduled court appearances.

A disproportionate percentage of those arrested failed to show up in court for their arraignment. The benefit of the new program, officials say, is that under Project 57, those arrested stay in jail until they are “recoged” (released on their own recognizance), or bailed out (by a bail bondsman) of jail.

Also, as a joint Portland/Multnomah County “Quick Facts” report, dated June 2007, says, “those who actually appear in Court for their arraignment have a greater likelihood of making subsequent appearances to complete adjudication of their charges and begin benefiting from whatever rehab services that may be available within the court system.”

While treatment while in jail may help prostitutes change their lives, they often are back on the street within 24 hours.

A third benefit, the report says, that “Immediate incarceration upon arrest, even for short periods of time, creates a disruption in an offender’s criminal behavior that COULD deter the arrestee from future criminal activity.”

Little jail time served
Because it is judges who sentence those who are arrested to jail, not the police, the police say street-level prostitutes spend very little time in jail when they are arrested.

“Anyone arrested [for a Project 57 offence] is taken to the Portland Justice Center for booking,” says Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander Michael Crebs. “They are ‘in jail’ as long as it takes them to be booked, and make bail. If they can’t make bail, they are held until their arraignment. Practically speaking, it can be from about eight hours to a couple of days before they are released.”

Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler agrees that specific treatment for prostitutes is a good idea.

In search of treatment
Multnomah County – not the City of Portland – is in charge of administering all treatment and rehabilitation programs.

Before a recent public meeting, we ask Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler if the county provides rehabilitation or treatment services for prostitutes.

“As far as I know,” Wheeler says, “there are no services specifically targeted toward prostitutes for alcohol and drug treatment. This is a serious issue; it seems like a gap in the services we provide to the community.”

We suggest that many prostituted women have “pimp problems” that overshadow their drug problems.

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Wheeler responds. “For a long time, we’ve looked at prostitution solely as a public safety issue. There is no question in my mind that people engaged in prostitution are also victims in their own way. There is an affirmative obligation for the community to reach out to them and help them see a better way.”

Multnomah County Mental Health and Addiction Services Division director Karl Brimner says his department is looking into what services may be provided for prostitutes.

Top treatment director speaks
Chair Wheeler suggests we contact the Multnomah County Mental Health and Addiction Services Division to learn more. After a telephone introduction, the division’s director, Karl Brimner, M.Ed., agrees to meet with us.

“Since we’ve talked on the phone, I’ve talked with my staff,” begins Brimner. “The county certainly offers mental health services to everyone. Adults, kids, families, whatever the need may be.

“When we are talking about situations related to prostitution, there are a number of variables into why women are involved. And, it is predominantly women who are involved.”

The division director says that when women call in and ask about something more specific than just some of the mental health services, they are directed to agencies – some not funded by the county – that provide services to individuals who may be involved sexual situations, including prostitution.

Little treatment while in jail
We ask if inmates are required to undergo any kind of treatment while in jail.

Brimner replies, “There may be some treatment available for people while they’re in jail, but most of the programs are after the discharge. It might be outpatient services or residential services.”

He adds that judges frequently make this treatment a condition of release, particularly if they are going on probation.

We ask, “When women who are convicted of prostitution go to jail, they are typically in the grips of their pimp. How might we help them break that control – break the cycle?”

Brimner replies, “It does get back to similar areas to domestic violence; the cycles that occur there in unhealthy relationships. Where domestic violence is part of the problem, there are services available.

“If a woman has been arrested for prostitution and has identified some areas, like domestic violence, or alcohol and drugs, or wants to see a mental health counselor – these can all be conditions of release as well. This would help the person deal with the problem, so they’re not recycling back into the criminal justice system.”

County treatment division director Karl Brimner says there is little treatment – of any kind – available to jailed drug addicts or prostitutes.

Hard questions; few answers
We learn there isn’t a specific program in which a judge can say, “As part of your conditions of release, you will take and complete the prostitution aversion program”.

From interviews we’ve had with organizations now disbanded, we tell Brimner it seems unlikely that a prostituted woman will take action to seek help.

Because most prostituted women are enmeshed in their domestic situation, we continue, they’re too afraid, or too strung out on drugs or alcohol, to call and ask for help.

We add that professionals have told us that jailing prostitutes may help them escape “the life” – not as punishment, but giving them a “time out” to think about their lives and situations. Jail gets them away from their pimp, drug dealer or both.

We get to our question: “How can we connect prostituted persons with helpful programs – when they are in jail – to give them the opportunity to make a choice without pressure from their pimp?”

“That is a good point, David,” Brimner responds. “One of the things we’ve talked about, among our staff members in the last few days, is that I want to make sure the folks in jail who deal with mental health issues are aware of the programs that are available. A woman serving some jail time has the opportunity to think about potential options and get the support to do that.

“We know that when folks are leaving the jail setting it isn’t always easy for them to pick up the phone and make the call for help. If there could be some kind of intervention as part of the discharge process it would be important. Or, maybe providing available service contact information would be helpful where appropriate.”

Good help is hard to find
In closing, Brimner gives us a list of three organizations that work with prostituted women.

“One is New Options for Women. It is counseling and assistance services for women and girls involved in a variety of aspects of the industry, including prostitution.”

When we called New Options, we learn the program lost its funding from Multnomah County during the summer, and has disbanded.

“Another is called Rehab Sisters,” Brimner states. “It is involved in counseling and support for those who work in the ‘sex industry’.”

Rehab Sisters’ telephone number has been disconnected; there is no new number. Through extensive Internet and directory searches, we find no listing for this organization.

“The third is Sex Worker Outreach, run through the Portland Women’s Crisis Helpline.”

When we contacted them, we’re told that they don’t operate a rehabilitation program; they run a crisis-referral service. However, the person in charge Sex Worker Outreach has not returned our calls.

Taking on the responsibility; putting it nowhere
While PFZ and DFZ ordinances put a bandage on the neighborhood-impacting symptoms of the problem by allowing police to exclude street sex vendors – we agree that the laws do not solve the problem.

We agree that taking habitual offenders off the street and jailing them under Program 57 is a good idea – but police say they’re back on the street as soon as they make bail or are arraigned.

And, we certainly agree that court-mandated treatment is a necessary step to help prostituted women change their lives.

County Chair Ted Wheeler told us, “As you point out, a number of those women don’t want to be that life. Some of them are being held in that field against their will. The threat of physical violence – we know that; that is factually the case. From my prospective, this is a vulnerable population we should be targeting to help.”

But, with the both the City and County turning their pocketbooks inside-out, showing they have limited resources; it appears as if help won’t be coming anytime soon.

No customer diversion programs
Perhaps you’ll recall how a “john” told officers he picked up the prostitute so they could “go have a taco together.” Intent is difficult to prove; it is extraordinarily difficult for cops to catch street sex “in the act”. Thus, most “johns” – the customers of prostitution – are never prosecuted.

Until they closed two years ago, the Lola Greene Baldwin Foundation ran court-mandated educational programs for “johns”. They, too, lost their county and state funding.

As their co-founder, Joseph Parker, told us in a 2005 interview, “Johns are addicted to using prostituted women to fulfill their fantasies. It is less about the sex act – but much more about having absolute power and control over another human being.”

It’s up to you
Sadly, this tragic problem is “out of sight; out of mind” for most Portland residents – they simply don’t care.

But, for the neighbors who go on their daily “used condom and needle patrol” missions; shoo their children away from the front windows of their homes; and, feel unsafe on their own street as “johns” and “hookers” conduct their business as usual, the quality of life in “their Portland” continues to sink.

Until the citizens of Portland tire of the vice that grips outer East Portland neighborhoods along NE Sandy Boulevard, and along 82nd Avenue of Roses, and elect leaders who feel their discontent, street prostitution will flourish.

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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