“I’ve been dead twice,” she says. “My heart stopped and they brought me back to life.”
Mimi runs through her life by the numbers: seven years tricking under Kensington Avenue; three or four days awake at a time, getting high every two hours, followed by 18 hours of sleep in a “bando,” or abandoned house; countless overdoses; four attempts at rehab; three stints in Riverside Correctional Facility for prostitution or narcotics possession.
Mimi is a denizen of Kensington’s prostitution trade—a scene that goes hand-in-hand with the neighborhood’s well-known drug trade. Residents frequently air complaints at neighborhood meetings. Sex in the alleyways, condoms on the stoop, late-night altercations about money or drugs. The sex workers, mostly women, work in plain sight near schools and businesses and family homes.
The police have to deal with these complaints, even if they know handcuffs won’t solve the problem.
“There’s a backstory to Kensington Avenue that nobody understands or reads about,” says Lieutenant Gary Ferguson, head of the PPD’s vice unit. “We’re out here every day and we get to see these girls on a level that nobody else sees.”
Ferguson spends half his waking hours out here looking for the “big picture.” He speaks in a low, woody timbre. He’s measured—stoic even—but there’s undeniable emotion beneath his words. Every story has a history of tears:
“We’ve locked up girls and they’ve said things like, ‘Damn, I’m supposed to go pick up my kids after school,’ or ‘I’m supposed to take my dad to dialysis.’ They got real lives outside of being prostitutes. They’ve got real responsibilities. ‘I’ve got to help my kid with his homework.’ They’re real people who just happen to have an addiction problem.”
Much like the drug trade, the vice squad faces the question of supply or demand. And as much as Ferguson would prefer to lock up all the johns, the reality is that, each year, Philadelphia police arrest hundreds more sex workers than they do johns on the streets.
The question “Janes” or “Johns”
Part of the vice squad’s job is targeting more organized operations, like hourly motels in West and Northeast Philly, massage parlors in Chinatown, and various sex-for-pay solicitations through free classified websites.
In 2015, PPD’s vice squad for the first time allowed a news team behind the scenes during a sting, which resulted in an inside report from CBS News Investigative Team. The cops laid a bait post on Backpage.com. Men answered the calls for a hotel date. Once they had sufficient evidence, the squad collared seven men for solicitation.
Around the same time, the PPD also started posting pictures of individuals arrested for solicitation on Facebook. It was part of a larger deterrence effort that prioritizes the so-called johns, who are mostly men, rather than the sex workers, who are mostly women, and many of them victims.
Nonetheless, between 2010 and 2015, the PPD made 5,560 arrests for prostitution, compared to only 1,239 for solicitation.
In 2014, the police department made 305 arrests for solicitation across the city—the most Johns police have ever locked up in a single year, according to Ferguson. That same year, officers also hit record-high numbers for prostitution arrests with 1,055.
Many of the arrests are for street prostitution, the bulk of which occur along Kensington Avenue, though there are other locales along Old York Road in North Philly, and even certain corners in Center City.
Police make prostitution arrests using plain-clothes officers. To target solicitors, they perform “reverses,” in which female officers impersonate sex workers. But the former takes fewer resources than the latter. Ferguson says it requires up to 10 officers to perform a “reverse” sting, while he can make prostitution arrests with just three or four officers.
Despite the data, johns are still the vice unit’s No. 1 priority, Ferguson says. But it’s more than a matter of manpower. At the end of the day, the workers themselves present a more visible problem to the surrounding community.
“A lot of the social groups are against locking the girls up, but the community deserves to have a little bit of relief,” Ferguson says, repeating the phrase with a sigh: “A little bit of relief.”
Family members call Ferguson’s office. Sometimes they know the exact corner their loved one is working along the Avenue—standing outside the bodega on A Street, sitting the fire hydrant beneath the tree on Albert Street—and they beg Ferguson to arrest her, if only to get her off the streets for a night.
“We’ve already realized we can’t arrest ourselves out of the problem,” he says. “We already know that locking these girls up is not the solution. That’s a temporary fix.”
Escaping from under the El
Mimi is dope-sick, catching warmth in a pizza shop. She’ll need to work to afford her next fix soon. The drugs don’t even get her high anymore, she says, not even the ultra-potent brands of heroin and fentanyl that authorities believe are connected to dozens of fatal overdoses in recent weeks.
“I’m sick of this lifestyle,” she says. “But I just have a hard time facing reality.”
Mimi’s reality can’t be counted by the numbers: the father who molested her as a child; the two-month old baby she lost to sudden infant death syndrome; the countless overdoses and bad dates in the days since.
Most of the men who frequent the sex workers aren’t from the Kensington area. Ferguson says between 50 and 60 percent come from suburbs like Cherry Hill, King of Prussia and Bucks County.
For some dates, “bad” would be an understatement.
In 2010, the “Kensington Strangler” caught international attention for a series of murders targeting drug-addicted sex workers. Another predator was recently arrested in connection to several assaults on Kensington sex workers, including the July murder of Rickie Morgan.
In light of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers this week, it’s important to note that the overwhelming majority of assaults on sex workers don’t make headlines.
Each week, Project Safe collects reports of these bad dates from the girls, which read like ticker-tape from the underworld. November 22: A white male with a chin strap picked up a girl on Pacific Street. He tied her up at knife-point, raped and sodomized her with an unknown object. November 7: A baby-faced black male picks up a girl at 3 a.m. She went unconscious in his car. He tore off her clothes, threatened her with a knife, choked her, and then raped her.
Unlike some of the sex workers, Mimi doesn’t have any family she can return to for help.
If she’s arrested for prostitution, the District Attorney’s Office may offer her one of two voluntary diversion programs, which are based on problem-solving court methods. One is the Accelerated Misdemeanor Program, or AMP, which is a non-trial program that community service and social service assistance, including help getting in rehab.
The other program is for long-term sex workers who have been arrested more than three times for prostitution. Project Dawn Court, which some informally call “Jane School,” offers more intensive help, from trauma counseling to housing assistance. It’s like a “last lifesaver” to get women like Mimi off the streets, says Derek Riker, chief of the District Attorney’s Diversion Courts unit.
Riker processes 50 individuals through Project Dawn each year.
Since these programs started in 2010, the District Attorney’s Office says over 1,000 prostitution cases have been referred to the AMP program. Since 2013, over 50 women have graduated from Project Dawn Court. Recidivism rates for women who completed the program were not immediately available.
“We have some women who are interested, but feel they’re not in a position to succeed in the program,” Riker says. They’re just not willing to take the chance of doing it, because ultimately, if you fail the program, you do expose yourself to being convicted and sentenced.”
Despite public health arguments against criminalizing prostitution, Pennsylvania courts come down hard with a harsh five-year maximum sentence for a first-degree misdemeanor like prostitution. Riker, who’s been working prostitution cases for a decade, says most end in a probationary sentence. Jail time is reserved for repeat offenders who refuse or fail diversion programs, and even then, most sentences are a year or less.
The johns have a diversion program as well, or “John School.”
First-time offenders arrested for solicitation can take a program called the Sexual Education and Responsibility (SER) program, which involves a mandatory group counseling and therapy. It’s either that or face jail time.
Riker says that of 485 participants in the SER program, roughly 10 individuals were rearrested within a year.