SWOP Behind Bars is a new project, which attracted my attention soon after its formation; I think it’s incredibly important so I asked the organizer, Alex, to explain the project herself. I’ve already donated a copy of my book (and will donate more to other prisons as the project expands), and I’ve given Alex carte blanche to use any of my columns in the newsletter she compiles for our incarcerated sisters. As a former librarian, I well know the power books have to change lives, yet they’re so inexpensive; please consider donating at least one book to this program, and read on for other ways you can help.
No one really knows how many women who are imprisoned have done some form of sex work, but guesstimates from prison and probation officials run as high as 70%, and it’s difficult to ignore the probability that the criminalization of sex work has a major impact on the prison population. According to the Florida Department of Corrections almost 6800 women are currently serving a sentence in Florida prisons, and another 38,000 are on state-supervised probation. Women make up approximately 7% of the Florida prison population, with 144 under the age of 21; black and Hispanic women outnumber white women 3 to 1. Programs for women behind bars are very limited, inadequately funded and mostly faith based, and re-entry services are pretty much limited to $50 and a bus ticket home, wherever that might be. While the biggest fear for a sex worker might be arrest, the biggest fear for imprisoned women is what will happen to them when they are released. These women return to their communities desperate and defined by their experience; their families are disconnected and they must find their own way to rebuild their lives. There is virtually no housing for those recently released, and they will be denied almost all public benefits because of their criminal records; they can’t get decent employment and they won’t be able to get a student loan in order to advance their education if they can’t or don’t want to engage in sex work. When this discrimination is combined with whore stigma and the ever-present shaming of current or former sex workers, those who have been incarcerated have virtually no opportunity to thrive on release.
The SWOP Behind Bars project at Lowell Correctional Institution is working to reach out to sex workers behind bars by donating books to the prison library, sending newsletters to those currently incarcerated and building a nationwide network of sex worker-supported letter writing. Women in prison who receive regular mail are perceived as “highly valued”, and it is the hope of SWOP Behind Bars to flood our incarcerated sisters with mail. We are currently working to integrate with other prison book donation organizations to duplicate our efforts nationwide, in the hope that over time we can create a sense of community and support that will help them cope while imprisoned and rebuild their lives once released.
This didn’t happen overnight and it’s not even an original idea. In the early days of sex work activism, Margo St James sued the state of California to improve programs and services for women in prison. As the sex worker rights movement grew over the next 20 years and the Amnesty decision support decriminalization thrust sex worker rights into mainstream discourse, we still loudly protested the criminalization of sex work and have worked diligently to minimize the danger of being arrested; however, there are still so many sex workers in prison and they need to know we are here for them. Many do not identify as sex workers, yet it only takes a cursory investigative search of the Department of Corrections websites to recognize that there is a large incidence of previous convictions for prostitution. Women in prison do not know about the vibrant sex worker community that is rising up in the US, and we think they should. Those of us who live in the free world have connected with each other via social media and through the organized efforts of Sex Worker Rights Organizations. We have shared our experiences and our knowledge with each other on Facebook, Instagram, Tumbr and Twitter. We have Art Shows and Operas and International Days we recognize together. We have at last created our own community that – for the most part – has given us all a solidarity that is unprecedented. We even have our own insignia…the Red Umbrella. Now we need to get back to our roots and reach out to those behind bars because that is where those who have suffered the most from criminalization reside.
Reading books is a popular prison pastime and unless one has somebody sending reading material inside, she is limited to what is in the prison library. But prison libraries are limited to what was left behind by others, legal books and a flurry of faith based material; our goal is to provide books to improve the lives of prisoners, to provide educational resources, and to help reduce the likelihood of their returning to the prison system. Our communities fare better when prisoners returning to society have had an opportunity to learn, grow, and mature as individuals, and books can provide inspiration and knowledge for that growth. We believe that books about sex workers, provided by sex workers, for sex workers, and to sex workers are the greatest way we can invite them to participate in our community and let them tell us how we can improve our efforts to make sure that they have the tools to develop the best version of themselves. Already the Lowell Correctional Facility for Women has been inundated with books donated by authors and individuals that tell about our history, our stories and our hopes for the future. The generosity of the sex worker community has been overwhelming. Each book donated will have a label placed inside that will identify our community and let them know how to reach out to us by phone and by mail. The SWOP Community Support has been activated with a new flock of enthusiastic volunteers to answer calls. Our first newsletter will be sent to more than 100 incarcerated recipients in the next few weeks, and we will be asking them to write to us and tell us their stories, and to organize support groups inside. We will be providing evidence-based material for them to learn more about us and about themselves. We have been invited to participate in the creation of a program that will launch this summer, in which we’ll have the opportunity to provide trauma informed, sex work positive training to corrections officers and other prison officials in the State of Florida. We are also working to create re-entry support services that are available to assist those who have recently been released find the resources they need to accomplish the goals they set for themselves.
Our call to the sex worker community is to join us in reaching out to sex workers behind bars. Here are 10 ways you can help.
- If you know someone who is in prison whom we could include in our monthly newsletter, send their mailing information to email@example.com.
- If you are the AUTHOR or PUBLISHER of a book you would like to donate, instructions are listed here.
- If you have your own newsletter or if you want to start writing to sex workers behind bars, we can send you our current list of sex workers. We are not publishing an online list of incarcerated sex workers until they request us to do so.
- If you want to send a book to a specific resident of a jail or prison, you MUST send it using Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble. There are no exceptions to this requirement in any US jail or prison.
- If you want to submit a story to the monthly newsletter, please send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- If you want to donate NEW BOOKS to the Lowell Corrections Institution Library, we have a wish list on Amazon.com.
- If you want to donate USED BOOKS to the prison library, please send an email to email@example.com and we will tell you how this works and send you instructions.
- If you want to start your own book donation program in your state prison or county jail, let us know and we will be happy to share our tips and tricks. We want to keep a record of books that are donated and a list of facilities where they are going so we know how to face future challenges with Books Behind Bars projects.
- We are building a toolkit for sex workers to use to reach out to recently arrested sex workers, and we will publish that information on the website and on Facebook and Twitter when it is complete.
- Finally, if you have ideas or resource material that you think would advance this project or assist in the creation of re-entry resources, please let us know about it. We are particularly interested in people who are willing to engage directly by phone, mail or email with recently released sex workers who need a sex worker friendly, non-judgmental mentor.
The books most often requested are biographies, short stories and self-help books, particularly those that assist with addiction and trauma related issues. SWOPUSA will be happy to send you a tax deductible receipt for the published price of the books, the cost of printing newsletters and any shipping or mailing costs you incur. You do not have to use your own return address for mailing books or newsletters; you may use the SWOP USA return address:
340 S LEMON AVE #7566
WALNUT CA 91789