Guardian investigation finds incarcerated women are groomed by pimps and forced into sex work once released
Women in prisons across the US are being recruited by sex traffickers who force them into prostitution on their release.
A Guardian investigation has found that traffickers are using government websites to obtain personal information including mugshots, release dates and charge sheets to identify potential victims while they are still behind bars.
Pimps also use inmates in prisons and jails countrywide to befriend incarcerated women who, on their release, are trafficked into the $9.5bn (£7.2bn) US commercial sex industry.
The investigation also found cases of the bail bond system being used in sex trafficking operations in at least five different states. Pimps and sex buyers are locating incarcerated women awaiting a court date by using personal data such as mugshots and bail bonds posted online, or through corrupt bondsmen.
Traffickers are then bailing women out of detention. Once released, the women are told they must work as prostitutes or have their bond rescinded and be sent back to jail.
Over the course of the investigation, The Guardian found cases of the bail bond system being used by pimps and sex buyers in Florida, Texas, Ohio, North Carolina and Mississippi.
“The pimps would use bail as a way to control us and keep us in debt bondage,” said one trafficking survivor from Tampa, Florida. She claimed she was forced to work as a prostitute to pay off her bail debt and locked inside a house and beaten if she didn’t bring home enough money.
“Once when I tried to escape, the pimp revoked my bond. He found me, threw me in a car and got me sent back to jail,” she said.
Diane Checchio, a former prosecutor for the district attorney’s office in Orlando, Florida, said the bail bond system was routinely exploited by traffickers.
Up to 80% of the trafficking cases she worked on in 2016 involved bondsmen found to be illegally passing on information about women arrested on prostitution charges to suspected traffickers.
“Sometimes women are released not knowing who bonded them out or why, or what they’ve gotten into, and now they’re being coerced,” Checchio said. “They come out of jail and there’s someone waiting saying: ‘I posted your bond – now you owe me’ … [They will] threaten to rescind that bond if the girls don’t do what they’re asked or told to do. It’s still happening now.”
Checchio said traffickers were likely to be targeting women involved in the criminal justice system across the country.
“I would find it very likely that this is happening in every state that has women’s records online,” she said.