OCALA, Fla. — In the world of human trafficking, victims, sold for sex, are not always identified as victims. Instead, they are often arrested.
That's something Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd acknowledged after a number of women were arrested in a sting operation.
“We know some of these ladies we arrested for prostitution denied being victims. However, there will be follow up by this wonderful team of folks because we know some of them are victims. That would not admit to being a victim,” Judd said, referencing a team of anti-human trafficking nonprofits that work with survivors.
Misty LaPerriere, a law enforcement liaison for Selah Freedom, said the path to identifying as a victim is rarely a straight shot.
“Sometimes it takes 8 to 10 points of contact before somebody is ready to get help and get out of ‘the life,’” she said.
There are women currently serving time in state prison for crimes committed while they were victims of sex trafficking — a reality the Florida Department of Corrections is now addressing, through new efforts to connect survivors with legal services and safe housing upon their release.
The Florida Women’s Reception Center, a state prison in Ocala, has an inmate capacity listed as 1,235. The I-Team met roughly 100 at a re-entry event. This event is for prisoners with less than a year left on their sentences. Statistics show three out of four women will be back.
What made the recent re-entry event different was the focus on human trafficking. The I-Team asked Warden Carol Casimir what inspired bringing victim resources to a prison — where women are serving time for crimes committed.
“Human trafficking is something that — it’s really not talked about a lot, especially in the female population setting. But we know it is occurring,” Casimir said.
The warden told the I-Team it’s about giving women a voice and a path to a better life than the one that led them to prison.
“There are some victims in the audience who may be too ashamed or they may be afraid to ask questions, and it’s very beneficial that they actually have an ex-inmate here to tell her story, And let them know that there is hope, there is life after incarceration, and that the resources and opportunities are available to them as long as they are willing to reach out.”
That ex-inmate was Janice Johnson.
“One of the most under-served areas where victims are identified is the prisons, in the criminal justice system. As far as them going unidentified. So me coming out here and doing this — I love it,” Johnson said, of sharing her story.
Speaking to the women, Johnson said she spent more than a year in prison across the street from the Florida Women’s Reception Center — at Lowell Correctional Institution, one of the largest women's prisons in the country.
“I was sentenced to prison behind my trafficking," Johnson said. "I was charged with racketeering and conspiracy to engage in a pattern of racketeering.”
To explain what led her to where she is today, Johnson spoke about being molested as a child.
“I couldn’t process that. How can a 9-year-old process that type of violation, and it wasn’t just one time. I was saturated in sexual trauma. At a very, very, very young age. So that kind of is what set that path for me to go down, to do drugs later on in life,” Johnson said. “I was an addict before I became a victim of human trafficking.”
When she was sentenced in 2017, Johnson put in an appeal and met Alexa Bennett, also a prisoner, who was a law clerk at Lowell at the time. Bennett is now a mentor in a voluntary program at the Florida Women’s Reception Center that connects inmates like Bennett, who are serving long-term or life sentences, with those who have short sentences.
Bennett told Johnson about Brent Woody, an attorney who runs the nonprofit Justice Restoration Center in Tarpon Springs. Woody provides free legal services to human trafficking survivors and works to expunge their criminal records.
“If you were forced into prostitution and have prostitution arrests,” Woody said when he spoke at the event. “We can expunge those prostitution charges.”
Woody told the I-Team he has attended two re-entry events at the Florida Women’s Reception Center. The plan is to visit every quarter. Since those two initial visits, Woody said he has received at least 30 letters from inmates telling him they didn’t understand they were victims of human trafficking.
Johnson is one who came out on the other side.
“When I started working with Brent, I had over 15 felony convictions,” Johnson said. “All of that has been expunged. All of it.”
Leading up to that, Johnson was given the opportunity to testify against her trafficker.
“Against the man who forced me to have sex for money for him. Who beat me, who I watched beat other people, who controlled us with drugs,” Johnson said. “I did it. And I really believe, like that day, that I got a little bit of myself back. That day. You know? And he is now serving 25 years in prison for what he did, so he can’t do it anymore.”
‘I’m very scared’
While some women nodded while the speakers shared information about resources, others spoke up or stood up to share some of their own stories.
“I’ve been a victim of severe sex trafficking, and every time I’ve been released from jail, they’re waiting for me,” one inmate said. “And I’m very scared. I want to change my life so bad. Drug addiction and the harm that I went through is so severe and I’m so looking forward to working with you.”
Bennett, who helped Johnson and countless others, sees herself in the women she mentors.
“Over and over again. Because even though being incarcerated for so long and being here, the issues of life are still the same,” Bennett said. “We’re all trying to change.”
As a mentor in the program, Bennett is not preparing for release in months or days.
“I’m currently incarcerated with two natural life sentences for murder in the first degree. I have been incarcerated for over 20 years, for approximately 22 years,” she said.
In 2001, a Hillsborough County jury found her guilty of first-degree murder.
“It all involves the deep, dark circle of trafficking,” Bennett, who worked at a Tampa strip club said.
“I danced for many years before leaving the dancing part and going to the management scene, which — that’s just as dark,” she said. “But it all boiled down to a loan sharking thing. And had to do with the enterprise that I was in. And I felt that I had to do what I had to do to one, save myself, two — to please my boyfriend.”
That boyfriend, Bennett said, was her pimp.
“I believe my victimization played a huge part in the choices that I made the night that I committed the murder,” she said.
With the support of her family, Bennett holds on to hope that somehow, one day, she will get out.
“When the judge sentenced me to life, he didn’t sentence me to death. He sentenced me to a new life, in a sense. And really, I have to hold on to that because I can take part in helping other women,” she said.
What motivates Bennett, is a mission to show women they can have a different life.
To show them that they are beautiful, to show them that they are strong, to show them they are survivors and they’re not victims,” Bennett said. “And know that there’s something on the other side for them. That there’s healing.”
Johnson is an example of that healing. She is now married, pregnant, and working with the nonprofit Her Song, part of the Tim Tebow Foundation, helping human trafficking survivors with safe housing and programs.
“I want people to know what’s possible,” she said.
But for some women, human trafficking isn’t a part of their past, it’s a life waiting for them with pimps and traffickers standing by the moment they walk out of prison.
“They recruit out of the prison now. That’s the big thing,” Bennett said.
Human traffickers and pimps are recruiting female inmates to be sold for sex after they are released from prison. The lure can be a place to stay, drugs, or a false promise of love and care.
The I-Team spoke with former Florida Department of Corrections officer, Sgt. John Meekins, who left the Florida Department of Corrections after 14 years and in 2018 moved to Columbus, OH. He remains in contact with people in the department, anti-human trafficking advocates, and some of the inmates.
Meekins, a member of the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators, speaks internationally about the issue of human trafficking in correctional institutions and has advised three state prison systems on sex trafficking.
Meekins, who spent 13 years at Lowell Correctional Institution, began his education on human trafficking in 2012 by attending a voluntary training conference on human trafficking in Clearwater. It was then he realized the stories sounded familiar.
He went back to Lowell, told the women what he learned, and said he’d be available to listen if anyone had a story they wanted to share and many did.
“It was just amazing the number of women that trusted me and would tell me that they didn’t want to go home because their trafficker was watching the website, and they could know when the person got out and the address where they were going to be,” Meekins said.
Bennett is one of the women who spoke with Meekins.
“He exposed a whole thing across the street,” Bennett told the I-Team, referring to Lowell. “People were being released to pimps.”
“They made me the expert. I mean I didn’t know much about it. But they would give me these little tidbits,” Meekins said, giving the websites where women were advertised for sex, names, and addresses.
“I’d actually go back in the computers at work and I’d start corroborating a lot of the stuff that they were saying and I was like, ‘Holy cow. They’re not lying,’” Meekins said.
At the time, Meekins said the Department of Corrections ignored his warnings.
“I was just met with a brick wall of skepticism that they had any issue with that in the prisons,” he said. “If some of the stuff that I saw wasn’t wrong, then nothing is.”
I-TEAM | Human Trafficking Coverage
Bennett said the recruitment of inmates is still a problem.
“It’s happening. They go right on the website, they look up their charges, they look up how much time they have left, and they’ll start sending emails to ‘em,” Bennet said of traffickers. “So we let the girls know, if you get a strange email, you come to us now. You let us know.”
Bennett said, through the mentor program, they’ve been able to report these messages.
“But we have to build that trust with the girls, so they can come to us when things like that happen,” Bennett said.
She’s seen what happens when they don’t.
“It’s hook, line, and sinker, and they’re right out that door, right back to where they began. Being victimized and exploited all over again,” Bennet said.
Meekins said women would show him mail from their traffickers.
“Just because somebody goes to prison, doesn’t mean that they’re safe from their trafficker,” he told the I-Team.
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In the interview, Meekins grabbed one letter as an example.
“This is a trafficker, he’s writing this girl," Meekins said. Then he quoted from the letter, "We was pulling in at least $600 to $1,000 a day on average."
"That’s an average day, that’s one girl," Meekins said. "Imagine if he’s got five to six at $1,000 each. That’s a lot of money. They’re trying to sweet-talk these women.”
Picking up a different letter, Meekins said a trafficker was writing and telling an inmate he needed a team of eight women who “aren’t jealous” and asked the inmate to find some “real people” in prison and see if the women would “team-up” with them.
“The whole recruiting aspect was blatant,” Meekins said. “They’ll look on the website and they’ll say, ‘Well, I saw this girl’s in there with you. You want some money? Get her to come home with me.”
Meekins shared another letter with the I-Team — one he said was written by an inmate to a trafficker. The letter mentioned talking to another woman about him, saying she’s “fun size” and “has 10 months left you’ll know when you look her up.”
Then there was a letter Meekins showed from 2012, written by a former inmate released to a trafficker — to an inmate awaiting release.
The letter said, in part:
“There’s six girls so we’re on a schedule.”
“He’s got so many rules and if you don’t follow them or seem ungrateful you will get yelled at.”
“I just left one place where they tell you what to do, how to do it, when you can do it and that’s exactly how it is here.”
The man referenced in the letter, Meekins said, was Richard Rawls. He was arrested in 2014 in Orlando and later sentenced to five years in state prison for sex trafficking and labor trafficking. He was released after three years.
In another case, a woman Bennett brought to talk with Meekins led to Corey Mosley pleading guilty to sex trafficking. He’s currently in federal prison.
“She brought forward an inmate that didn’t want to go home because her trafficker was waiting on her,” Meekins said. “He ended up getting 20 years.”
Meekins said he feels he's been able to make an impact — and that others can do the same.
“All it takes is a little bit of education and some training," Meekins said. If you can talk one or two women out of that life, and maybe into a different life, I mean society is a lot better off."
Bennett told the I-Team it’s about cutting off those ties.
“It’s about recognizing it, exposing it, and saying, you know what, that’s not gonna happen. That’s not gonna happen to you and we’re gonna find a better place for you, we’re gonna find something better for you,” she said.
Meekins said there are ways for the Department of Corrections to help sever the prison to sex trafficking pipeline — by making certain release information harder to access, providing transition assistance, housing, and jobs to women getting out.
“Just because something looks voluntary, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s voluntary if they don’t feel that they have other options,” Meekins said. “When the department doesn’t offer suitable housing for somebody getting out of prison, these traffickers will. They’ll step up and they’re gonna fill that need.”
The I-Team asked the Department of Corrections about the process when an inmate is released if it is tracking when multiple women are moving to the same address, for any red flags, and efforts to stop sex trafficking recruitment.
We are waiting on those answers.
If you believe you are a victim of Human Trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, please visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline, or call them at 1-888-373-7888. If you suspect a child is a victim, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.