Human Trafficking Networks in Prisons

For years, John Meekins* heard inmates talk about how they had been prostituted and held captive by pimps. As a corrections officer, he often considered it part of the lifestyle of many drug abusers, but it wasn’t until he attended a conference on human trafficking that he quickly realized that many of these inmates were likely victims of human trafficking—and that he had done nothing to stop it.

After learning more about the signs of human trafficking, he started on a personal mission to investigate what was happening within the prison walls. He found that there was a network of female prisoners actively recruiting other female inmates on behalf of outside pimps. Meekins discovered that pimps use inside recruiters to identify vulnerable women who are getting out of jail soon. After women are recruited, pimps start personal conversations with them (often via mail) offering to take care of them when they are released. The pimps send them money as an act of good faith and then arrange to pick them up.

“Human trafficking within prison has been happening for a long time, making some of these women slaves on the outside,” said Rob Stallworth, who spent 15 years as a parole officer in Virginia. “It’s definitely a trend that some people inside correctional facilities are seeing, but refuse to talk about.”

Once Meekins understood that what he was seeing was human trafficking, the signs were very obvious to him. At first it was eye-opening that much of the communication came right through the prison mailroom. When Meekins took his evidence to his supervisors, he was told there was nothing to be done: It’s not illegal to send prisoners money and in most cases the system cannot legally control who leaves the prison with whom. “It is frustrating because it’s so obvious what is happening,” he said. In Meekins’ experience, the formal reporting system within many prisons is not tailored to dealing with issues of trafficking. Meekins suggests the most effective way to report information is to call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline (888.373.7888).

It is critical for correctional facilities to increase the amount of training about the realities of human trafficking within the prison system. Prison authorities must:

  • Educate inmates about human trafficking. Meekins suggests looking beyond your organization and encouraging church groups or other non-NGOs to provide awareness training to inmates.
  • Train the staff. Supervisors must educate their staff, especially those who screen phone calls and mail, and educate them about the signs of human trafficking. In Meekins’ case, he created posters with information about the indicators of human trafficking.

*More about John Meekins: Meekins graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and is a member of the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators and the Florida Gang Investigators Association. Meekins has spent nine years working with female inmates in one of the largest female prisons in the nation. The information and perspective he provided in this article are his own opinions and do not reflect those of any department or agency. 

Learn more at Leischen Stelter’s In Public Safety article: Combatting Human Trafficking Networks within Prison Walls.


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