NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–I’m struck, as always, by how young they all are at Horizon Juvenile Center. Swallowed by their massive jumpsuits, they look more likely to be playing double Dutch than to be in lockdown.
I’m reminded of when I used to come to do outreach and would eat lunch in the cafeteria with the girls, a fact that staff seemed to be both disdainful of and perplexed by. On one of my first days there, we’d all been lined up with our trays at the lunch counter and the girls had all received a milk carton. One of the cafeteria workers nodded to me. "Gotta give’em that, for their nutrition. They still growing."
And that pretty much sums up juvenile detention for me. Children who still require nutritional supplements are locked up.
It’s with this in mind that I meet Keisha, a brown-skinned heavyset girl, her frame more commonly referred to in the streets as thick. Keisha’s thickness is evidently puppy fat and the childlike roundness of her face points clearly to her age, 13. We make small talk and then her lawyer and I try to impress upon her the importance of staying calm in court; on her last court appearance she had cursed out the court officer, who she says grabbed her arm too roughly.
Keisha is uninterested in this discussion and would rather talk about a boy, Troy, she has met in detention. Keisha is excited about this new relationship and after 25 minutes, it’s clear she’ll chatter about Troy all day without ever taking a breath if I don’t interrupt. She is reluctant to address the charges of prostitution that are facing her today, but I explain that although I know that she’s probably tired of telling her story, I need to ask her questions so that I can talk to the judge. I already know the details of her arrest, but I need the background story and I have to help her decide if she wants to press charges against her pimp.
The Night of the Arrest
With a deep, dramatic sigh that only a teenage girl can utter, Keisha begins to tell me what happened the night of her arrest. After just a month on the track, she had caught a date with a middle-aged white man who to her looked the same as all her previous tracks. The man asked her if she would have sex with him, as she had been trained, she asked if he was a cop. Once he said no, she told him it would be 50 dollars.
Once the verbal agreement for sex had been made, the man went on to request a hotel date. Keisha had not yet been on a hotel date and did not understand what she was expected to do. The man stated that he wanted to "F**k the shit out of you." Still a little confused about the rules covering this type of agreement, Keisha then asked to borrow the man’s cell phone so that she could ask her pimp how much she was supposed to charge. Her pimp, who was standing just a few feet away from the car, yelled at her for her stupidity and told her to charge $150.
Immediately after this exchange, the man in the car told Keisha she was under arrest and pulled out a pair of handcuffs. From the car, Keisha saw more cops pull up in another car and arrest her pimp. Keisha was particularly peeved that the officer had lied when she asked him if he was a cop. Conventional wisdom on the track teaches that a cop may be undercover but when asked directly if he is a cop, he is not allowed to lie. With the prevalence of movies and TV shows depicting undercover cops, it remains a mystery to me why so many girls believe this to be true.
Once at the precinct, Keisha says the officers yelled at her and told her she was dumb for having a pimp and that then they asked her if she wanted to press charges against him. In their report, the officers felt that Keisha was "resistant" to their interrogations. The following morning her pimp was released on $20,000 bail and now Keisha remains, four months later, in a juvenile detention center charged with an act of prostitution.
The fact that Keisha’s pimp had been released the next morning and was now free to have his friends make threatening phone calls to her auntie’s house only reconfirmed her decision to stay silent. We discuss her concerns for her auntie’s safety, given that her pimp lived in the same neighborhood and talk for a while about possible placement options if the judge is open to it.
Both her lawyer and I are realistic about the fact that she is probably going to be sitting in detention for at least the next few months, if not longer. Keisha is disappointed; she doesn’t understand why she is the one in jail while her pimp is out, doesn’t understand why she, who’s been beaten and forced to make money for him, is being treated as the criminal.
I don’t have the answers for her. She is being criminalized for something that has been done to her. Punished for not talking to men who have shown her nothing but disdain. I figure in her situation I would be resistant, too.
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Rachel Lloyd is a nationally recognized expert on child sex trafficking in America, and played a key role in the successful passage of New York State’s groundbreaking Safe Harbor Act for Sexually Exploited Youth, the first law in the country to end the prosecution of child victims of sex trafficking. Her trailblazing advocacy is the subject of the critically acclaimed Showtime documentary "Very Young Girls" and the upcoming memoir "Girls Like Us" (Harper Collins).
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