Challenging “Helpful” Raids in Phoenix, Arizona

This week, Project ROSE—a collaboration between the Phoenix Police Department, ASU School of Social Work and a number of local service organizations–is conducting a three
day raid targeting sex workers and people in the sex trade for arrest. Sex workers and their allies have organized a comprehensive response to these rights violating raids which are planned for May 15, 16 and 17. Advocates have distributed “know your rights” information amongst communities who may be affected by Project ROSE’s raids. A public action protesting the raids is planned on Thursday May 16 at 4.30 pm in front of the “command post” at Bethany Bible Church where community members will be transported after their arrest by the Phoenix Police Department.

Project Rose is predicated on the notion that arresting people in the sex trade is the best way to link them to services. This program relies on force, not human rights and harm reduction. Arrestees who are eligible—the program is available to those with no prior arrests for sex work, no outstanding warrants, and not in possession of any drugs at the time of arrest—only have the option of “diversion” to Project ROSE or incarceration on a prostitution charge.

Sex worker rights advocates in Phoenix are challenging the utility of Project ROSE and are raising concerns about the abuses that arrested community members may experience at the hands of the police and in prisons. “Project ROSE is not a solution to violence and harm against sex workers,” said Jenelle Lovelie of the Phoenix chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), adding that, “Project ROSE criminalizes sex workers and masquerades as a social service project.” Another local organizer Jaclyn Moskal-Dairman noted that the “restrictive eligibility criteria for accepting ‘diversion’ from criminal charges mean that many who will be arrested this week will not be offered services at all. Instead they will be incarcerated.” In Arizona people arrested under anti-prostitution statutes face a mandatory minimum sentence on their first charge and felony charges after the third arrest. Experience has shown that being incarcerated in Arizona can be a death sentence. In May 2009 Marcia Powell, a woman serving a 27 month sentence for solicitation of prostitution, died after being left in a prison holding cage in the blazing sun without water. Project ROSE would not have assisted Marcia, the program would have imprisoned her because she had several prior arrests for prostitution.

Sex workers and their allies are demanding rights based approaches that work such as peer based outreach programs, comprehensive services and an end to police harassment and arrest. They are adamant that Project ROSE is ineffective and the numbers confirm their claims. Of 214 people arrested since the program began three years ago only about one third complete the diversion program. The fate of the remaining 70% is not clear, but it seems likely given Arizona’s tough stance on incarceration that they have been sentenced to jail or prison.