Tamara* started selling sex at age 20. “You just kinda fall into it,” she says. “I thought it would be exciting. Living off the land. Footloose and fancy-free.” Then came the rapes and the beatings by customers, the felony drug charge, and all the time in Dallas County Jail.
One night in December 2010, while working a truck stop along Interstate 45, Tamara tried to sell to an undercover cop. He arrested her, put her in a car, and drove her out to an empty lot behind a McDonald’s near where I-45 hits I-20.
A makeshift encampment was set up there, with dozens of bundled-up people milling around or sitting in folding chairs at card tables. Women were pulling old, oversize men’s coats over After Five cocktail dresses, or sweats over naked legs and pleather stilettos. The cop told Tamara she could either talk to the people there and get herself into a recovery program or she could go to jail. She chose talking.
The middle-of-the-night stakeout is part of PDI New Life, a Dallas Police Department program aimed at shifting prostitutes out of jail, off the streets, and into rehab, counseling, and job training. Once a month, cops pick up women who they either know to be prostitutes or who are soliciting sex and bring them to the lot behind McDonald’s, where PDI offers women 45 days of live-in treatment, including trauma, substance abuse, and mental-health counseling, as well as help navigating social services, finding housing, and securing a job.
The potholed asphalt lot is staffed by the sheriff’s and police departments, the health department, nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors for substance abuse, trauma, and domestic violence, all of whom assess the women right there that night, and determine what services they need. There’s also a mobile municipal court for handling low-level misdemeanors, like when a known prostitute leans into or flags down a car, which is a city ordinance violation. For higher-level misdemeanors, like actually offering sex for money, the women are still transported to jail, but can enter the program on pretrial release.
“It’s like planning a wedding every month,” says Louis Felini, the Dallas PD sergeant who cofounded the program in 2007 with Renee Breazeale, a senior manager at a substance abuse and mental-health treatment facility in Dallas.
There are church ladies camped out here, too. They bring a hot meal. “No one prays over them or anything like that,” says Breazeale, who is now PDI’s executive director. “The point is to help them begin the exit process and get services that night.”
It all started because of 9/11. The police department was investigating truck stops as possible staging areas for terrorist attacks involving massive 16-wheelers instead of airplanes. But instead of terrorists they discovered 1,000 prostitutes servicing the 2,000 trucks that cycled through every day.
“We did what we do well,” Felini says. “We arrested everybody.” But soon, officers realized women were trading sex for survival needs, many of them were trafficked, and some were so damaged they “couldn’t do anything else if [they] wanted to.” The oldest was 64. “We thought they’d die” if the police department didn’t do something about the vicious cycle, Felini says.
It’s not that easy to convince the women to play along. Many are not enchanted by the idea of being arrested and pushed into treatment. For that, there are ex-prostitutes to help. Jammie**, who heads up the outreach, has nine felony convictions and used to do sex work to support a $500-a-day crack habit. “We interact with them on a level that other women don’t have the ability to do,” she says. “I’ll say, ‘What is so great about getting calluses on your knees that you don’t want to leave behind?'”
Tamara has oiled, straightened bangs and a serious forehead. She takes big pauses as she talks. “I figured me doing something different couldn’t a hurt, couldn’t a made my world any worser,” she says. There’s something to that. Studies of prostitutes aren’t done all that often, but research over the past decade shows that that prostitutes have mortality rates that are 60 to 100 times that of other women. They are 40 times more likely to be murdered. Three-quarters have PTSD. Almost half have attempted suicide. Most are addicts, with histories of abuse and mental illness.
Still, locking people up for selling sex is more common than treatment. Felini says Dallas arrests several thousand people for street prostitution each year. In almost all states, prostitution is a misdemeanor, punishable by anywhere from a few days to two years in jail. Texas is one of the only states where the offense is a felony (on the third strike). There are some 350 women in the state prison system who were convicted of selling sex. Nationally, those who sell sex are locked up at two to three times the rate of those who buy sex, according to the Center for Battered Women Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families in New York City.
“It’s nuts that we’ve got this many prostitutes in prison, people that we’re not afraid of, but we’re just mad at,” Texas state Sen. John Whitmire said last year. “By locking them up, we’re not fixing the problem—we’re just spending a lot of money incarcerating them, warehousing them.”
It costs $18,538 to house a convict in a Texas state prison for a year, according to the Texas Legislative Budget Board. It costs $4,300 a year to put her in rehab.
But the Dallas program does more than just save money. Within three years of PDI’s start date, there was a nearly 60 percent drop in crime in truck stop areas in the city. In 2011, 48 percent of those who completed inpatient treatment were not rearrested for prostitution. In early February, Whitmire introduced a bill that would make programs like PDI mandatory for all Texas counties with more than 200,000 residents.
And now copycat diversion programs are cropping up fast around the country. Phoenix and Columbus have diversion programs like the one in Dallas. Corpus Christi, Texas, is considering one. Last year, New York City police commissioner Ray Kelley met with prostitutes and trafficked women to talk about fairer enforcement actions, and in Queens, Judge Fernando Camacho created a diversion court, which links prostitutes to counseling and social services instead of sentencing them to jail time. Dallas created two prostitution courts in the past five years, and Houston is considering one.
Diversion-type programs can be traced to the 1830s, when probation programs were born in Boston courts, but the modern version of diversion for sex workers began in the ’60s and ’70s. Advocates at the national level say that while the programs have been around for a long time, they’ve taken off in the past few years. It’s “a trend that’s really building,” says Michael Shively of the research firm Abt Associates, who has spent years gathering data on the “demand” side of prostitution. He says those initial diversion programs “have served as models, and now people all over the place are standing up these little things.”
Tamara is living with her mom right now, taking care of her baby, a girl. She has applied for jobs at American Airlines and 7-11, but it’s kind of hard “because of my background,” she says. “I just wanna work. Do normal things.”
She’s wearing dangly snowflake earrings the day I talk to her. “It is what it is,” she says. “I’m really all right.”
*Not her real name.
**Jammie prefers her last name not be used.