"Finding Alicia: Court hopes to show prostitutes a way off the streets"

By Sarah Ostman
Feb. 5, 2011

It’s 10 p.m. on a Thursday and I’m sitting in the back seat of a friend’s disheveled Chevy Cavalier, perched atop a pile of law school textbooks and unwanted clothes. We’re in East Garfield Park, and while three years ago Business Week magazine called this neighborhood among the most “up-and-coming” in the country, it doesn’t feel that way tonight.

I’ve been told to keep an eye out for prostitutes starting around Madison and Western, the eastern edge of one of Chicago’s most infamous “ho strolls.” Sometimes the women look innocent enough, the experts say, like they’re waiting for a bus, only at a closer glance, there’s no bus stop around.

We’re creeping past California Avenue when a woman in a black bomber jacket yelps out like a schoolgirl, waving her arms at us like she needs help changing a flat. My friend pops a U-turn as the woman starts strolling down a side street. I hop onto the sidewalk and, stammering a little, explain what I’m looking for: no sex, just questions. She looks skeptical at first, but once I say I’ll pay her for her time, she accepts my invitation to talk as if she’s accepting a drink at a party.

As we drive, Alicia -- whose name has been changed to protect her privacy -- tells me a life story that is in many ways typical: beatings at the hands of her stepfather, running away from home, teen pregnancy. The baby boy she gave birth to at age 15 died of SIDS when he was 6 months old, she says; grieving, she turned to crack.

Fast-forward 12 drug-heavy, couch-hopping years, to 2006: Alicia was wandering aimlessly on the West Side when a car pulled alongside her. “What’s up, Blackie?” came a voice from inside. This man would become her pimp, and "Blackie" her nickname. I ask if she loves him. She says, “Very much.”

Alicia has been in and out of jail ever since; she’s currently on parole. She’s also high, and begins to get restless as she speaks. She’s surprisingly beautiful, I think, for someone who’s been smoking crack more than half her life; her face is plump and girlish, glimmering with sparkles from her eyeshadow. A few months ago, that face was swollen and disfigured, she says: A john led her into a pitch-black garage and cracked her face with a two-by-four.

She sounds sincere when she says she’s ready to get out of the game. “I’m still young. I still got life in me,” she says. “So I f---ed up 32 years of my life. I don’t have to f--- up the next 32.”

My eyes dart nervously each time we hear the distant whoop-whoop of a police siren, but it’s never coming for us. Alicia never seems to register the sound.

* * * * *

About a year and a half ago, Cook County Criminal Court Presiding Judge Paul Biebel Jr. called a meeting at the 26th and California courthouse, bringing together rape crisis workers, rehab counselors, prostitution survivors – a veritable treasure trove of knowledge about the dark side of sex work. They were there to discuss a plan: a new specialty court known as WINGS – Women in Need of Gender-specific Services – that, in a model similar to homeless or drug courts, would help prostitutes get off the streets.

With everyone seated, the judge opened a copy of “SuperFreakonomics” and read aloud from chapter one, “How is a Street Prostitute Like a Department-Store Santa?” In the chapter, the book’s authors portray prostitution as a well-paying gig, listing the average going-rates for manual, vaginal and anal intercourse, and noting the average prostitute works a cushy 13 hours a week.

Daria Mueller recalled Biebel’s words when he set the book down.

“He said, ‘This is what we’re up against. This is the attitude that we’re facing. … This court is going to address the reality behind what the women are actually experiencing in the sex trade,’ ” recalled Mueller, a policy analyst at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“We’re talking human issues,” later remarked Biebel, a warm man who speaks un-jadedly of every person’s intrinsic dignity. “We’re talking about people who are prostitutes because they have drug problems, because they were abused as children. That’s a very real issue.”

Popular culture often paints a rosy picture of prostitution – think “Pretty Woman” and “Moulin Rouge” – but talk to any real street prostitute and you’re bound to hear a far different story. Women often fall into the industry not for glamour, but because of a series of life twists that sent them to the streets. They have often been molested, taught from an early age to disengage in their minds from what happens to their bodies; they are nearly always addicted to drugs; they are sometimes beholden to pimps who have, perhaps for the first time, made them feel loved.

These issues, experts and prostitutes agree, can make it nearly impossible to get out of prostitution. And the current criminal justice system is not providing an adequate escape ladder, Mueller argued. Even when women are processed through Cook County’s “Division 17,” a segment of the courts designed to serve women, they don’t seem to get the help they need.

“They’re processed in and out, no one is there to offer any help or provide any services,” Mueller said. "(And) what happens when they’re back in the community? They’re going to go right back to what they came from, because there’s not any infrastructure there to help support them.”

Organizers hope WINGS will help. The court, which began as a pilot program in January, brings together dozens of organizations to assemble a custom-made plan for each woman. After a four-month assessment period in jail, participants are released to treatment.

Still, there are serious challenges. For starters, there’s no outside funding for the court, so participating nonprofits will serve the women out of their own pockets.

Furthermore, plans call for the WINGS program to take around 18 months to complete – nine times longer than the average jail time served for the crime. While that time will mostly be spent living independently or in supportive housing – not in a jail cell – participation still demands a huge commitment.

A handful of prostitution courts have popped up across the country in recent years, seeing varying levels of success. In Dallas County, Texas, 111 women have been admitted into the county’s prostitution court, which began in June 2008. Only 16 have graduated.

Those numbers make more sense when you understand where these women are coming from, says Dallas County Judge Lena Levario. One of her participants grew up homeless in a Georgia forest. Another was a heroin addict at the age of 8.

But Biebel believes that, for the right women, WINGS will be a life-changer. He thinks back to a particular prostitute he judged years ago, who over the course of nine years was arrested 233 times.

Something happened with this woman, though: She got off heroin, and she never got arrested again. There are more women like her out there, he said, who deserve the same chance.

“They’re tired. They’re tired of living the lives they’ve lived, they’re tired of being estranged from their children, they’re tired when they look in the mirror, they’re tired of worrying about STDs,” Biebel said said. “And only when they’re tired are they willing to make a change.”