Sex Workers Helping Sex Workers Behind Bars
The difference between people inside and outside of prison is often good versus bad luck, rather than good versus bad people. Sex workers are particularly attuned to this reality. Unlike the general public, we don’t have the luxury of living in denial and believing that people in prison are distant “others.” We tiptoe across the thin, arbitrary line between freedom and incarceration like trapeze artists, but we can only rely on each other for a safety net if we fall. As stigmatized, criminalized people who can’t really trust most institutions in society, community care is a cherished practice for us. Writing letters to fellow sex workers in prison is one way this manifests. When you viscerally understand that it could have been you, the humanity of incarcerated people becomes crystal clear. Sex workers see mirrors outside of prisons, rather than brick walls.
I’ve been writing letters to sex workers in prison since 2017. Initially I did it on my own. I’d written to incarcerated people before, but after becoming a sex worker, I felt compelled to seek out sex workers in prison to contact. I was connected to inmates through the list of participants in SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) Behind Bars’ Mentor by Mail program. SWOP Behind Bars is a direct service provider to sex workers in prison, as well as those recently released. Among the many services they offer is a 24/7 community support hotline and chatline to assist sex workers with any crisis they can. They also provide gift boxes full of basic necessities upon release, including a smartphone with 90 days of prepaid service, an essential tool for getting identification, jobs and housing. Mentor by Mail is their pen pal program, connecting sex workers inside and outside of prison through letter writing.
Leading up to the 2019 AVN convention in Las Vegas, my friend and colleague Kingsley approached me about holding a letter writing party for incarcerated sex workers. We worked together to organize it during the convention and ended up with about 30 letters at the end of the day. It was such a success that we did it again at the 2020 AVN (the most recent in-person AVN convention, sadly). On International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, December 17, 2020, I helped organize a letter writing party over Zoom to honor the sex workers facing violence in prison. These events are moments for us to be in community and hold the sex workers who are suffering in our hearts. A tangle of love and grief characterizes the gatherings, emotions essential to solidarity.
In April of this year, I threw a “proper” letter writing party. This time it was in a sanctioned venue, 910WeHo in West Hollywood, rather than an unsuspecting restaurant we would just descend upon with tote bags of writing supplies. Lu, an attendee and “jack-off all trades” porn assistant, catered the party, artfully arranging an impressive spread of hors d’oeuvres. What I didn’t know, when I first planned the event, was that prison correspondence had changed since 2020. Although prisons still accept paper letters, they have been pushing to phase out physical mail for some years now, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2020, increasing numbers of prisons scan all letters and provide digital facsimiles via email to the recipient through a private service called MailGuard. This process causes delays in delivering mail and sometimes makes handwriting or photos illegible. Spokespeople from the Department of Corrections claim that the changes to mail improve security and efficiency and allow more services to be provided in prisons. Civil liberties advocates say that the security threat posed by paper mail is exaggerated and the restrictions are merely collective punishment and exploitation. When you are providing a direct service, rather than pursuing a policy goal, however, pragmatism is the priority. Direct service providers such as SWOP Behind Bars ask, “What’s the best way for us to reach people in the current landscape of the prison system?”
A second private company, called JPay, has also embedded itself in the financial and information systems in correctional facilities. Founded in 2002, JPay initially provided only wire transfer services to prisons, but has since expanded into entertainment and correspondence (despite numerous lawsuits and settlements over accusations of exploitative practices). JPay is currently offered in 35 states across the country, providing free tablets to prisons in several of those states. Advocates have criticized this move as charitable only on its face. People have to pay well above retail cost for much of the content available on the tablets, such as music and books, even those that are free to everyone outside prison walls. One of the more twisted examples is public domain W.E.B. Du Bois literature costing 99 cents on JPay. (Do you hear that sound? It’s Du Bois, rolling in his grave.) Although they are happy to accept praises of philanthropy, JPay expects to earn back the cost of each tablet plus an additional $9 million in revenue due to these grossly inflated prices. A single song on JPay can cost as much as $2.50—representing anywhere from two to 25 hours of work at prison wages. That being said, some content is free, such as educational materials uploaded by SWOP Behind Bars. Their “Reentry Guide” has been available at no cost on the tablets for two years.
Such dichotomies characterize many aspects of the JPay tablets. Video visitation can allow for higher-quality long-distance correspondence, but some prisons are taking advantage of that to restrict in-person visitation for those who are able. This not only hinders close family contact, but puts the incarcerated and their families in a position where they have no choice but to cough up $9.95 to a private company simply to see their loved one’s face. Sending an email on JPay is less expensive than a stamp, but stamps are not sold for private profit, unlike these emails; nor is the USPS singularly targeting a literally captive audience. More technology in the hands of incarcerated people can provide many benefits, while simultaneously creating opportunities for exploitation and surveillance. When you gaze into the abyss of the JPay tablet screen, it gazes back.