Sex Traffickers Routinely Exploit Prison System To Recruit Vulnerable Women Into Sex Work

Traffickers and pimps target incarcerated women by posting their bail, making the women indebted to them

“To identify victims, traffickers sometimes employ women who are also in prison, who scout potential inmates who could be groomed and recruited. Women recall receiving letters from pimps who woo them with promises of financial and emotional security upon release, and describe feeling like there was no choice but to go along with the trafficker at the end of their sentence.”

 

Kate had spent three years behind bars at Lowell Correctional Institution, Florida’s largest women’s prison, when the letters from Richard Rawls started to arrive.

Men had written to Kate in prison before, but this time was different. Although she had never met him, Rawls made her feel special. He wrote that he’d seen her mugshot online and couldn’t stop thinking about her. Somehow aware that she was getting out soon, he offered her money, a home and unconditional love when she was released.

The letters promised Kate a future she never imagined possible – a way out of the cycle of prostitution and incarceration that had defined her life after a childhood of chaos and abuse. Soon, Rawls stopped signing his letters “Rick”; instead, he urged her: “Come on home to your daddy.”

“When you’re in prison, all you think about is getting out,” Kate says. “The hours go by and it really hurts to know that nobody thinks about you in there.

“So when you get a letter it’s like a gift from God. He told me everything that I wanted to hear. He said I wasn’t going to be a prostitute any more, that I could go home with him and live at his house, and that he would be the love that I was searching for.”

When Kate walked out of prison, Rawls, a career criminal and convicted felon with more than 47 charges for sexual battery, child abuse, drug possession and assault, was there to pick her up. Just as he had promised.

“When I got into the car, he’d brought me two sweater dresses, a bottle of Heineken and a lot of crack,” she says. “I went right back to smoking crack my first day out of prison.”

When she got back to Rawls’ house, Kate knew immediately she was in trouble. Instead of the comfortable home she had been promised, the house was filthy and chaotic. Cockroaches crawled up the walls. The windows were sealed shut. And hungry, chained pit bull dogs whined and barked outside. Inside the house, Kate found half a dozen other former Lowell inmates.

“It was just crazy in there, really a living hell,” she says. “At first he gave me all the drugs I wanted, but he made sure that I watched him beat the other girls and I wasn’t allowed to leave his room. Then, after two weeks, it switched up and he started telling me that I owed him for all the drugs he’d given me, and now I had to go make him money.”

Four months later, a heavily armed Swat team blew in the windows of the house and arrested Rawls, who was later convicted and jailed for human trafficking.

An 18-month police investigation concluded that, over the course of five years, Rawls had trafficked Kate and at least 18 other women out of jails and prisons across Florida.

At the time of his arrest, he was making thousands of dollars a month from prostituting the multiple women he was keeping at the house. Controlling them with narcotics, prescription pills and brutal beatings, he touted them on street corners and escort websites.

Rawls remains the only person convicted of trafficking women out of criminal justice institutions in the US. Yet his case is by no means exceptional.

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