The 'Gentle Jailer' on the myths of prostitution

Bill Nelson is the Director of Correctional Services for Volunteers of America, Minnesota and Founding Director of the Women’s Recovery Center, a residential program for women in the process of leaving prostitution. Nelson is also the founder of the anti-violence agency La Oportunidad, Minneapolis, and adjunct faculty at Brown College. As if that weren’t enough, he farms 150 acres. He was recently featured in a television documentary Prostitution: Beyond the Myths and managed to carve out a few minutes to talk to City Pages.

City Pages: What is the Women’s Recovery Center?

Bill Nelson: I ran into two former prostitutes who were echoing an idea about what women need to get out of prostitution. I’m also a jailer and everybody knows prostitution is a revolving door offense. So I hired them. We formed what’s called a “skunk works” -- it’s a term patented by Lockheed Aircraft and it’s a basis for thinking with no particular agenda. We took that approach. And they told me, “What we need is a recovery center, and we need to go to the MN legislature and ask for a million dollars.” I said, “You gotta be kidding! Nobody cares about prostitution. The legislature is never going to approve that.” We went there anyway. We didn’t get a million, but we got $600,000. Jesse Ventura signed off on it, which is ironic because of his stance on prostitution. Next question: where do you put it? Who wants a residential facility housing 24 ex-prostitutes in their neighborhood? We put it in North Oaks, which is a very wealthy neighborhood. We’re on the grounds of the Home of the Good Shepherd. Word started to spread about what we were doing, literally worldwide.

For a period of time, I was getting a lot of inquiries from Madrid, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Scandinavia, Sweden. I actually went to Sweden and lectured on it. A year ago I went back to the University of Stockholm and delivered an outcome paper. It showed 89 percent success (measured by conviction records) one year following discharge. The women in the documentary were out of the program for six years and it illustrates the permanency of the program. They represent over five hundred women.

CP: How did you come to start working with prostitutes and former prostitutes?

BN: It all started when I started a private jail 22 years ago for Ramsey County. I guess I would describe myself as a compassionate person. It just became so evident that women in jail in so many ways are victims of all kinds of abuse. I know I’m talking like a liberal and I’m really not-- I’m talking very pragmatically. I just know what I see. Out of this, I got the nickname ‘the gentle jailer’ because I really believed that when women go to jail, they should go there for a purpose other than punishment. They should actually have an uplifting experience. And so we started to see women in prostitution going to jail cumulatively for five to six years, costing ninety to a hundred thirty thousand dollars just for incarceration and we put that together with health consequences. So on one hand what we do in addressing prostitution is expensive and it does not succeed without the right kind of intervention. And the right kind of intervention really involves addressing issues that we learned from the Vietnam War, known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Prostitution hurts women and children in terms of emotions, psychologically, and it leads to early death. Our whole focus is very pragmatic. Philosophically we assert that prostitution is wrong because it hurts women and children. Number two it is costly to society. Number three there is really no consistent integrated approach in our metropolitan area to effectively address prostitution.

CP: In your experience, why do women become prostitutes?

BN: It’s actually almost all the time related to some form of abuse at a young age and if you watch the documentary you’ll see that home life is impossible and girls and women leave and pick up with the wrong individuals, and then the phenomenon persists because of the brain washing that’s involved: dependency, disability, and dread.

CP: What does the Women’s Recovery Center do to help women leave prostitution?

BN: I was the architect to put together what is already known about women and healing. It was really the whole package that has made it effective. That includes a chemical dependency treatment specific to women, mental health services specifically addressing PTSD and other psychologically crippling effects, and an emphasis on building self-esteem. Women do well by supporting one other-- that’s called the relational approach. Women heal with other women. The background essentially is about isolation and the program focuses on restoring relationships, building relationships. Now by contrast, if women and men are in group-counseling, you will find, typically, that the men do the talking and the women shut down.

CP: How widespread is prostitution in the Twin Cities?

BN: Everybody has their own statistics and estimates, partly having to with how they define prostitution. We incorporate stripping as concomitant with prostitution because the two go together in many-- if not most-- cases. Some people have said seven to nine thousand. The irony is that in some point in their career, women want to get out, but they’re trapped in it.

CP: What are the biggest misconceptions that people have about prostitutes and prostitution?

BN: One is they’re in it for the money. Number two, they enjoy sex. Number three, if two consenting adults want to engage in sexual behavior why should we, the state, interfere with that? That’s assuming that we’re talking about consent, and the consent is not really there. If you’re supporting a drug habit, you’re driven, you’re not consenting.

CP: Would legalizing prostitution solve the problem?

BN: No. It’s legal in New Zealand, Amsterdam, Germany, and it’s legal in five or seven counties in Nevada. In Sweden it is decriminalized for women, but illegal for men. We can’t do that, of course, because of constitutional protections. Amsterdam liberalized drugs and everything and they created a red zone. They have now cut that back by one third. And do you know why it doesn’t work? Sexual predators-- male “Johns” are always looking for younger meat, and so that creates a market for trafficking of children. In Africa, there are beliefs that if you don’t want to get HIV, you have sex with a child, the likelihood is that she is clean. Or if you want to get rid of your HIV, have sex with a child. There are countries that want to tax it-- that in turn encourages people to continue with illegal prostitution. That’s another trend they’re seeing [in countries where prostitution is legal] -- illegal prostitution because if you’re a pimp, what’s left of your job? The government has taken over and become the pimp. When we put together our mission statement, it ends by saying, “and with a life without prostitution as an outcome.” The problem we have in society and with social problems is that we tend to define the problem from its symptoms. Gangs, for example, are bad. Gangs hurt people. But the focus is not gangs. You have to go deeper. Drill down. You have to drill down if you really want to do something about it. They’ll be one bust after another, and you put the bad guys away, end of problem. That’s not so because there’s always the new recruits and you can put them away for only so long. You have not solved the problem unless you’ve drilled down to get right to its origin.

CP: Why not go after the pimps and the “Johns” -- the men who solicit sex from these women?

BN: They’ve run and established “John schools” around the country. The rate of recidivism is 2% or less and they attribute this to John schools. However, a government study determined that application of the justice model for “Johns” leads to the same results. Whatever that punishment is, the result is 2% or less recidivism. So anything they do by shaming or photos, is fine, I guess. But I don’t support putting up photos of women who have been arrested for prostitution. It’s like putting out a Sear’s catalogue. The world sex network at one point listed the St. Paul Police Department’s prostitution photo practice as ‘Check this out.’ You’ve got your pictures, you’ve got your general location. It’s like shopping out of a catalogue.

And it’s based on shame and guilt. Women have an easier time talking about their involvement with prostitution with me, a male, than with another woman. Do you know why? They’re reading into that other woman saying, “How could you be doing this to yourself?” There’s a perverse mutual understanding between a current or former prostitute and a male. One of our subjects in the documentary was willing to talk about her massive drug habit with the female producer, but would not say much about her involvement in prostitution.

CP: What are the main challenges that a woman leaving prostitution faces?

BN: All the practical things you can imagine. For example, housing. Where can she really live? She already has a record. Employment. She has no job history. Education. She may have no education to speak of. And she has this terrible dependency she’s grown to adopt into her personhood. It’s like a dependency on males. One of our former prostitutes said, “For a year, I was by myself.”

CP: Why should the problem of prostitution be of concern for the average Minnesotan?

BN: My position is that it’s really the Minnesota way, it’s about compassion. If you look everywhere in the metropolitan area and in the state for that matter, we’re building more and more and more jail space. We can say with certainty in prostitution a jail period is nothing. One woman went nine years to prison and what she’d do? She came out and she prostituted because she had nothing else. No skills, no talents, no support system. In other words, you can get all this “treatment” but when you really step out, being in a supportive environment or having a community support system – it doesn’t make any difference who or what. It could be a church, it could be a self-help group like NA, it could be a women’s gathering of one sort or another. A support simply gives people an affirmation that they’re doing well. The people who have left the program call us when they have relapsed and they call us to get support. In other words, you can try again. As they talk about it, they say, “I slipped, I turned a trick, but it didn’t feel the same. Why is that?” Our response is, “you’re growing.” You and I never learned to ride a bicycle out of a book or at a seminar, or nine books or ten seminars. We just did it and the chances are that both of us fell down more than once, but we did get up, we didn’t swear off bicycling. We did it till we got it and you can’t explain how you got it either.

For more information about prostitution and the Women’s Recovery Center, watch the documentary Prostitution: Beyond the Myth which airs Saturday, September 1st at 8:00 pm on Channel 17, Twin Cities Public Television.

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