Project ROSE aims to change lives, traumatizes sex workers instead, critics say
In April, almost a year after social work senior Monica Jones was arrested on suspicion of manifesting prostitution, a gavel banged in a courtroom full of supporters. After the judge announced Jones was guilty, she firmly decided to keep fighting for her case and sex workers' rights.
“That’s who I am, and I will never stop advocating," she said. "No matter if I have to do 30 days in jail, I’m still going to advocate for it."
In May 2013, a day after protesting Project ROSE, a project led by the School of Social Work and Phoenix Police, Jones, a transwoman, was walking in a tight dress from her home to a nearby bar to meet with her friends.
When she got in a car with a stranger that night, she didn’t know this decision would result in an arrest, a grueling trial and a sentence.
Jones also didn’t know that a year later, her courtroom would be full of many supporters while Project ROSE would receive attention from social rights organizations and national media, be scrutinized, torn to shreds and finally called "flawed."
By that fateful night, Jones had already been actively protesting the project. She said it was obvious to her it traumatizes sex workers and violates their rights and that its logic is wrong.
Jones was arrested on suspicion of manifesting “an intent to commit or solicit an act of prostitution,” according to court records.
The circumstances that may be considered in determining whether such intent is manifested include whether a person "repeatedly beckons to, stops or attempts to stop or engage passerby in conversation or to stop motor vehicle operator by hailing, waiving of arms, or any other bodily gesture," or "inquires whether a potential patron, procurer or prostitute is a police officer or searches for articles that would identify a police officer," according to the statement of the case in the court record.
Jones was in an area near her home, which is “known for prostitution,” and her “black, form-fitting dress” suggested that she was manifesting intent to engage in prostitution, according to the records.
Arguments presented by advocacy and civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, state that the law is overbroad and vague. They argue that it allows officers to profile transgender women and presume that they are engaging in criminal conduct when doing their daily routine. This infringes upon the First Amendment, they say.
Along with testifying for Jones, ACLU has looked closely into Project ROSE, examining the possible violation of due process rights and challenging the state's "manifesting prostitution law."
While records state that Jones approached the police car and engaged in the conversation, she said she was walking to a local bar when the truck pulled in front of her and the driver asked if she needed a ride. She decided to take it.
“It’s not a crime to take a ride,” she said. “People ask me for rides all the time. God, if you’re a woman, and you’re beautiful ... you don’t even have to be beautiful, they’re going to stop asking if you need a ride, it doesn’t mean sex working. So that’s what my case is about and we’re fighting it against the manifestation law — it’s overbroad, and it targets women.”
Once inside the car, a police officer asked Jones how much she would take, and she didn’t reply. Instead, she asked if he was a cop, which falls under the manifestation law.
“Basically I wasn’t arrested for prostitution, just the attempt of a sexual act, because of the way I was dressed, because of the area I was walking in, asking someone if he was a cop,” Jones said. “These are all things under the manifestation law that criminalize women.”
Jones said she was arrested "walking while trans" — a term used to refer to the violence and harassment transgender people face on a daily basis, because they are assumed to be sex workers.
Jones has been stopped by the police six times since she started fighting the charges, and sometimes she gets harassed even at ASU, she said.
On the night of arrest, Jones was taken to the Bethany Bible Church but refused to take part in the diversion program. She was denied legal counsel, she said, and her phone was taken away.
She saw Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, a creator of Project ROSE and a professor at ASU School of Social Work. Jones wanted to ask her for help, because they have met and debated over the project before, but she was shocked when Roe-Sepowitz said she didn’t want to talk and walked away.
“Here she had the opportunity to help an innocent person out, and she didn’t not,” Jones said. “She said she was going to help people. She didn’t help me, and she’s a social worker.”
Roe-Sepowitz declined multiple interview requests and refused to comment about the project.
Jones was found guilty on April 11, but she’s not giving up, she said.
She is going through an appeal process and by the next hearing on Nov. 24, she will have been learning about sex work policies and engaging in harm-reductionist direct services while interning at Scarlet Alliance and SIN sex work organizations in Australia, where sex work is legal.
Jones travels around the U.S. to talk about transgender rights at conferences. She also spends a lot of time with her family, who helped her deal with the case and recover from an attempted suicide, she said.
“I feel that the program lacks free will to the participants,” Jones said. “And so, as a social worker, when people's rights are being violated, you stand up and you’re saying, 'No, this is wrong.' We need to work on better programs.”
Three years ago, the newly organized Project ROSE, which stands for Reaching out to the Sexually Exploited and is a collaboration between the School of Social Work, Phoenix Police and social services agencies, was lauded in the media and collected a lot of praise as a way to “fight prostitution with human approach.”
The project recently drew the attention of civil rights activists and organizations, national media and celebrities, who have called it "flawed" and said Arizona’s law sex worker laws are "tenacious."
Phoenix Police spokesman Steve Martos said the program aims at changing sex workers’ lives by helping them extricate themselves from the lifestyle by connecting with necessary resources, such as training, housing and food.
“Whatever it might be to help them get on their feet so they can get away from this life of prostitution,” Martos said.
Twice a year over the course of two days, more than 100 police officers and other supporting organizations conduct eight-hour-long stings in areas where sex workers are likely to be found. After searching poor communities and conducting online stings, police handcuff sex workers and take them to the Bethany Bible Church, where social service agencies, prosecutors and volunteers wait for them.
One of the problems with the project, Jones said, is that the only lawyer the detained sex workers can talk to is a prosecutor. If they want to talk to legal counsel, they face a tough choice of either taking the diversion program or facing charges.
Will Gonzalez, bureau chief of the city of Phoenix Prosecutor’s Office, who runs the diversion unit, said the choice is clear.
“They are not under arrest," Gonzalez said. "They are not handcuffed in the facility, and at any given time they can say, ‘No, I’d rather be booked for my charges.' But if they’ve committed the crime — that’d be the act of prostitution — and they say, ‘I don’t want to do any services, I’d rather go to jail,’ we’ll take them to jail.”
Referring to recent statistics, city of Phoenix Prosecutor Aarón Carreón-Aínsa said the program lowered the recidivism rate from 30 percent to 14 percent, which illustrates its accomplishments.
“For a program that tries to change the trajectory of peoples’ lives, that’s a pretty good number,” Carreón-Aínsa said. “Are we satisfied? Of course not. Because there are some lives there that we didn’t effectively help. And so we continue to search for ways to improve how we do this.”
Jaclyn Moskal-Dairman, the founder of Sex Workers Outreach Project in Phoenix, said while Project ROSE claims to offer a clear choice between taking the diversion program and being charged, there’s nothing voluntary about it and these ultimatums are infuriating.
“It’s a dichotomy — either or,” Moskal-Dairman said. “Like, you’re going to do this, or you’re going to jail.”
The program lasts up to six months, including a week-long 36-hour class. It aims to offer the participants counseling and educational services on such topics as sexual health, safety and drug abuse.
While the program points out the endeavor to meet the "whole need of the person," Jones, who had to go through the program several years ago when it wasn’t a part of Project ROSE, said the DIGNITY program lacks free will and might cause more harm than help for the sex workers.
Out of fear of being incarcerated in one cell with men and being harassed, Jones, as a transgender woman, didn’t have to think long to choose the diversion program over going to jail when she was arrested several years ago.
The experience was demeaning, she said.
“The intake process is very invasive into someone’s life,” Jones said. “It was like, ‘Have you been raped? Or have you been beaten by your client?’ If someone came in and said, 'I need a job or I’m proud to be a sex worker, I like sex, I like money,' ... they would say, ‘Not compliant.’”
Jones said she didn’t get to complete the classes, because in the middle of the program, she received a call from the agency to tell her she didn’t have to come back.
“They said, ‘Monica, you have a really strong personality, and we don’t want you to throw off all these girls,’” she said.
Not everyone can qualify for the diversion program. The eligibility requirements compel sex workers to have no previous sex-related arrests and to be in the program for the first time.
For those who are brought inside the church but appear to be ineligible because of outstanding warrant or previous sex trade convictions, the program accelerates the way to jail, where sex workers face a mandatory minimum sentence and felony charges.
Jones said not only does it not provide childcare and food during a week-long class from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m, but it also deprives them of their main source of income and therefore the ability to pay their bills.
The only reward sex workers get upon completing the program is a flyer and a mirror with a starfish on it, Jones said. The only life choice they have after the diversion program is to go back to sex work, get arrested again and go to jail.
“This program creates a revolving door into the justice system, because it’s not addressing the needs of these women,” she said.
Gonzalez said once the program is complete, about 40 percent of the sex workers don’t reoffend.
“If you complete the program, there’re no charges," he said. "You don’t have a criminal record, and so that’s the upside to it."
Sex Workers as Victims
The project started in 2011 with an ideological change in the way people view sex workers. Instead of looking at sex workers as people involved in criminal activity, the police department started viewing them as potential victims.
“Victims for whatever reason, whether they were being victimized by ... (a) pimp who’s forcing these individuals into lives of prostitution, victims of drug abuse, victims of circumstance, whatever it might be,” Martos said. “We’d prefer to treat them as victims, but ultimately that’s up to them.”
Jones, along with other activists, can’t solve the riddle of this philosophy.
“If you say they are trafficked and you say they’re victims, then why are they being prosecuted, why are they being handcuffed?’ she said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
The program claims to provide sex workers with resources and services to help them change their lifestyle but at the same time ends up creating a traumatizing environment by arresting them, Jones said.
“I’ve never seen a domestic violence victim being arrested for help or someone who is a rape victim being arrested to get services,” Jones said. “So if you call them victims, then treat them like victims.”
The city of Phoenix prosecutor Aarón Carreón-Aínsa said in the first place prostitution is illegal, and the way to address it is by turning it into a criminal offense.
“I see great value in having those laws, because when you think in terms of what impact these activities have on the rest of society in addition to the people that are in that life, that’s of great concern to me,” he said.
Sex work is popularly viewed as highly tied to sex trafficking, but this approach is frowned upon by many rights advocates. They argue that there are many women who engage in sex work by their own free will or are having to do survival sex, a term used to describe sex work caused by extreme need.
“What about survival sex? You don’t want to do this job, but you’re doing it to survive. It happens a lot in the community not everybody is just doing it, and the problem is systemic,” Moskal-Dairman of SWOP Phoenix said. “Especially in Phoenix, the environment is extremely hostile. And (the program) completely lacks the nuanced analysis of these peoples’ lives.”
Because of the overbroad laws and definitions, statistics end up flawed and therefore so do the ways to address sex work. Sex workers are tired of being victimized and want to be involved with the policies and programs that affect them, Moskal-Dairman said.
While trying to detect traffickers, which is very hard, the laws target sex workers, stripping women from the rights to their own bodies, Moskal-Dairman said.
“They will say that it’s traumatic to use your body, well you know what? This is my f-----g body,’ she said.
Although sex workers are uncuffed after stepping inside the church, the project has raised multiple concerns about violating sex workers’ rights.
In 2013, a study called Ethical and Human Rights Issues in Coercive Interventions With Sex Workers referred to the project as “the heart of the outrage.”
The study says the program targets sex workers for arrest to offer services in a coercive environment, which violates social work ethical standards across the National Association of Social Workers, Council on Social Work Education, and International Federation of Social Workers.
“Furthermore, providing social supports and services through criminal courts, even if on a voluntary basis, assumes participants in these programs should be under surveillance by the criminal judge system,” the study says.
“There’s a way to challenge that and that’s through the courts,” Carreón-Aínsa said.
SWOP Phoenix states on its website that the project overlooks basic human rights, such as the right to work, the right to be free from violence and the right to due process.
After interviewing Roe-Sepowitz, Moskal-Dairman was looking to establish a sex work coalition as an emergency response to Project ROSE. That's when she found out about SWOP, a national organization with seemingly like-minded interests in the rights of sex workers, she said.
With the assistance of other community activists, Moskal-Dairman established SWOP Phoenix to put an end to the coercive model through educating sex workers about their rights, offering testing and passing out condoms, rather then criminalizing sex workers, she said.
Moskal-Dairman recently traveled to Geneva to present the report of civil rights violations on behalf of Arizona sex workers to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which seemed incredulous to learn about U.S sex work policies, she said.
The organization has been protesting Project ROSE since last year, characterizing it as "traumatizing."
SWOP focuses on creating a supportive and safe community for the sex workers and harm-reductionist approach, but initiatives like Project ROSE make it difficult to build trust, Moskal-Dairman said.
“It’s a very isolating job,” she said. “Because of initiatives like Project ROSE, it makes it extremely difficult to create a community to make it safer. It pushes sex working even more underground.”
The statistics provided in a Bad Encounter Line Research Report conducted by Chicago Young Women Empowerment Project show that sex workers much more often experience unpleasant encounters with the police — 48 cases — than with pimps — four cases. Fifty-five percent of all bad encounters with police are harassment, and around 25 percent are sexual violence, according to the report.
That’s why sex workers are more afraid of the police than anything else, Moskal-Dairman said.
“Getting people that relief of being able to relate after being in isolation for so long is very important,” she said. “And I think it helps in so many ways if there’s a place where you can get information instead of hiding from the police and the organizations that are supposed to be helping. But they are criminalizing sex workers and that’s disastrous.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @KseniaMaryasova