Police in Arizona have been rounding up sex workers and bringing them in handcuffs to a Phoenix-area church to meet with investigators and choose between a diversion program or possible jail time.
Police and students from Arizona State’s School of Social Work have detained more than 350 people since 2011 in twice-a-year raids.
The sex workers are not officially “arrested,” police told Vice, but are “lawfully detained” in windowless church rooms without a lawyer present.
They are required to attend educational and support groups as part of the diversion, but critics say the program does not consider that some sex workers are not victims in need of rescue but consenting adults who chose their line of work.
About 35 percent of the sex workers picked up in the raids go on to lead productive lives, said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research and an Arizona State professor.
Roe-Sepowitz, who founded Project ROSE, said the other 65 percent just aren’t ready to leave sex work behind or are still dealing with the abusive relationships or drug addictions that drove them there.
“Once you've prostituted you can never not have prostituted,” Roe-Sepowitz said. “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.”
Taxpayers pick up most of the program’s cost, including $1,500 per day to Bethany Bible Church during the two-day raids every six months.
Volunteers, including social work students and former sex workers, also participate.
But SWOP-Phoenix, a sex workers activist organization, has filed a freedom of information request to discover the project’s other sources of funding.
While judges offer education, rehabilitation, or community service to offenders in diversion programs across the country, Project ROSE offers these options to people before they’re convicted and before they can meet with a lawyer.
Critics say sex workers are denied access to an attorney and coerced into the program in an attempt to “rescue” them.
One of those critics, ASU student Monica Jones, said she was targeted for arrest after speaking out against Project ROSE.
Jones said she advertised on Backpage.com, which is used by sex workers seeking clients, to warn of the upcoming raid after taking part in a SWOP rally against the diversion program.
She was arrested on a manifesting prostitution charge by an undercover officer after accepting a ride home from a bar and agreed to be taken to Bethany Bible Church.
But the third-year social-work student said she was ineligible for Project ROSE’s diversion program due to previous prostitution convictions and now faces months in jail and fears her degree may be in jeopardy.
Many sex workers picked up in Project ROSE raids are also ineligible for the program due to previous prostitution charges or because police find drugs or weapons on them when they’re detained.
But those who are eligible are offered emergency housing, detox, and counseling, and they must then complete 36 hours of classroom work run by Catholic Charities.
Jones said she completed the DIGNITY Diversion program after a previous prostitution arrest, comparing the class to Alcoholics Anonymous, but was asked to leave early because organizers feared she would influence other participants.
“I wasn’t ashamed about being a sex worker,” she said. “I kept bringing this up during the diversion program. Girls would ask me why I didn't feel this way. Well, because I don’t. I have the right to my own body.”
[Image: Police Officer Delay Prostitute In Front Of Brick Wall via Shutterstock]