‘I Have a Right to My Own Body’: How Project ROSE Tries to ‘Save’ Sex Workers

Last year, Monica Jones was targeted as part of Project ROSE, an "arrest alternative" anti-prostitution program. As Jones' trial starts, here's a look at how Project ROSE operates.

Last year, Monica Jones was targeted as part of Project ROSE, an "arrest alternative" anti-prostitution program. Police car via Shutterstock

Update, March 14, 3:25 p.m.: Monica Jones appeared in court this morning, pleading innocent to charges that she had “manifested” prostitution. However, the trial was postponed until April 11.

According to a statement from the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project Phoenix, “Ms. Jones’ lawyer filed a motion challenging this statute on constitutional grounds, resulting in Ms. Jones’ trial being postponed. … Ms. Jones states, ‘We will be back with twice as many people.'”

“Sex workers are humans, too!” read the sign Monica Jones held up outside Bethany Bible Church in Phoenix last May. Jones, along with a dozen or so others from the local sex worker community, was holding a vigil on the sidewalk opposite the church. Inside, police were dropping off women they’d detained that day on prostitution-related charges. Volunteers at the church greeted the women, who arrived in handcuffs.

This is Project ROSE (Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation). If the women agreed to enter the program, the project volunteers explained, their prostitution charges could be dropped. It is just one in a growing trend of “prostitution diversion” programs, pairing police and prosecutors with social service providers, targeting sex workers through stings on the streets and online, aiming at removing women from the sex trade.

Project ROSE founder and University of Arizona social work professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz describes Project ROSE as an “arrest alternative.” Within 36 hours of the protest last May, nearly 100 people suspected of being sex workers would be brought to Bethany Bible Church and offered Project ROSE as an “alternative” to arrest. One would be Monica Jones.

On March 14—nearly ten months later—Jones goes to trial to fight these charges. She’ll be joined by supporters from Sex Workers Outreach Project-Phoenix (SWOP-PHX) to fight against not only her arrest last May but to protest Project ROSE’s role in anti-prostitution policing. “They don’t really arrest you with Project ROSE,” Jaclyn Dairman, one of the founders of SWOP-PHX told Rewire. “They just kind of kidnap you.”

“Once You’ve Prostituted, You Can Never Not Have Prostituted”

Project ROSE began in September 2011, and operates twice per year in Phoenix. First, police conduct stings and detain people suspected of selling sex, and bring them to Bethany Bible Church. There, Project ROSE staff determines if they are eligible to take part in the program. “All eligible Project ROSE clients must agree to complete the Prostitution Diversion Program,” states the project’s brochure. “If completed, the arrest from the sweep is not filed. If they do not complete the diversion program, their arrest is filed and when they report to court to respond to the arrest, they are again offered a plea agreement to either attend the Prostitution Diversion Program or serve jail time.”

An Al Jazeera America Tonight report on Project ROSE’s October 2013 operation showed women brought to Bethany Bible Church in handcuffs. Some were in tears. Uniformed officers stood next to posters hung in the church, printed with pink roses, directing volunteers to the various stations that those detained will be brought to: “1st STOP: CHECK-IN. 2nd STOP: POLICE. 3rd STOP: PROSECUTOR’S OFFICE.”

Al Jazeera reports that since the program began, more than 350 people detained on prostitution-related offenses have been brought to Project ROSE. Only 30 percent complete the program, meaning that the majority will face mandatory minimum penalties for prostitution: In the City of Phoenix, that’s 15 days in jail for a first conviction, 30 days for a second conviction, and 60 days for a third conviction. On subsequent convictions, the State of Arizona considers the offense a felony, with a mandatory minimum of 180 days in jail, a measure signed into law by former Gov. Janet Napolitano in 2006.

It’s primarily women brought to Project ROSE by police—by their own accounting, Project ROSE states that only five men and eight “transgender persons” (whose gender was not further specified) have been brought to the program. Though they are threatened with criminal charges, there is no public defender on site to advise them of their rights, only a prosecutor. It’s prosecutors who tell those detained that their prostitution-related charges will not be filed if they comply with the program’s requirement to entering the prostitution diversion program, which is operated by Catholic Charities of Arizona and is called DIGNITY.

“Catholic Charities Community Services recognizes prostituted women as victims of sex trafficking,” DIGNITY’s program materials state, “and helps them to escape ‘the life’ through DIGNITY (Developing Individual Growth and New Independence Through Yourself).” The 36-hour program provides “self exploration and education to develop self esteem and give hope.”

DIGNITY’s focus on self-esteem is echoed by Project ROSE founder Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, who told an Al Jazeera interviewer last October, “Once you’ve prostituted, you can never not have prostituted. You are always identified even by yourself that way—having that many body parts in your body parts, having that many body fluids near you, and doing things that are freaky and weird really messes up your ideas of what a relationship looks like and intimacy.”

Roe-Sepowitz declined to comment for this story.

But what Project ROSE actually claims to provide is ways for women to leave sex work, which doesn’t involve finding other ways to have sex, but finding other ways to make a living. Rewire asked Jaclyn Dairman of SWOP-PHX what Project ROSE was doing to meet the economic needs of women brought to the program. They aren’t, she said. “Project ROSE is taking that away from them.”

As for what they do provide, “the services that Project ROSE offers are already available,” said Dairman, “they’re just hard to find.” During both the May and October 2013 Project ROSE operations, SWOP-PHX did its own street outreach, distributing water and condoms and “Know Your Rights” flyers and posters in areas known for sex work. “I probably emailed, called, and texted 150 workers on Backpage right before the stings,” said Dairman, “and I got really good responses from most of the workers. It’s so hard to create a community with sex workers here because you have your community organizations turning up to arrest them to provide services. Who can they trust? Perhaps if these organizations did their own outreach to sex workers then they wouldn’t have to arrest them to provide services.”

Some social workers have also criticized the program for using the threat of prosecution to get people into services. “Interventions like Project ROSE violate standards of informed consent and individuals’ rights to full participation,” wrote Stéphanie Wahab and Meg Panichelli in Affilia.“The only services offered to escape prosecution are through a particular diversion program further limiting the options for support and assistance.”

“To be taken to social services in handcuffs rather than to prison is different, but whether it’s similar or not, it’s not an answer,” said Andrea Richie, an attorney and co-coordinator of the LGBTQQ social justice project Streetwise and Safe, which also includes people in the sex trade. What’s needed isn’t necessarily diversion from sex work, Richie explained, but meeting the present needs of people engaged in sex work.

“People are demanding the things they need every day,” said Richie, “whether they’re demanding affordable housing, or a living wage, or access to health care that allows people to preserve their gender identity. People are demanding those things every single day and not getting them. So to have an arrest-meditated referral system to a program that’s not meeting the basic needs that they’ve identified, it’s just a waste of everyone’s resources and it’s another form of punishment.”

“I Have a Right to My Own Body”

On the day of the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project protest of Project ROSE in May 2013, Monica Jones, who is a former sex worker and a transgender woman, used her account on—where she had previously placed adult services ads—to post a warning about the Project ROSE stings, which she heard about through SWOP. Since she was using her old account, her ad contained the city where she lives and old photos of her.

The next night, Jones was walking to meet friends at a bar, a man offered her a ride. She got in the car. “Then,” said Jones, “it went to, ‘How much would it cost for me to hang out with you?’ I said, ‘Why are you asking me these questions?’”

Jones said she told the man to turn off the road and let her out at the bar, but he refused. He moved his car into the middle lane of traffic. “I couldn’t get out of the car,” she said.

“His reaction told me, OK, this was a cop,” she said. “And so I just sat there.”

Jones was right. A police report documenting Jones’ May 17 detention confirmed the Phoenix Police Department’s participation in Project ROSE at the time, and the man who picked her up, Daniel Hinz, was an undercover police officer.

Hinz pulled his car over and was joined by a marked police car. Jones said a uniformed officer who had just arrived asked her if she was “working tonight.”

In the police report, Officer Hinz claimed, “[W]ithout any previous conversation SP1 Jones approached my vehicle and pulled down the front of his dress and exposed his breast to me”—a claim Jones disputes. Hinz further claimed, “I asked him if he had some time and he said he did.” Later, Hinz said, “I asked SP1 Jones if I could get some head and he nodded his head in agreement.”

While the report lists Jones’ legal name (Monica Jones) and gender (female) as it appears on her driver’s license, the officers repeatedly referred to her in the report as “he” and “him.” As Andrea Richie explained to Rewire, being mispronouned or misgendered by police is common for transgender individuals and often “precedes other serious kinds of misconduct by police, including searches to assign people genders, or to view their genitals, or invasive questions about their bodies, and about procedures they may or may not have had, and then often, also precedes physical abuse or sexual abuse.”

In this case, Jones was placed in handcuffs and told she had “manifested” prostitution. She was given the option to go to jail or to Project ROSE.

When Monica Jones was brought by police to Project ROSE in May, she had already been arrested on a prostitution-related charge, and she had served time, in a men’s jail. “That’s the reason I didn’t want to go to jail,” said Jones. The Maricopa County 4th Avenue Jail in Phoenix—whose website boasts it is “part of the largest county jail expansion project in the history of the nation, supported overwhelmingly by the taxpayers of Maricopa County” and prominently features a headshot of infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio—is where Jones was incarcerated for a prior arrest. “I was isolated,” she said. “I was put into this little room by myself.” Jones said both guards and other prisoners harassed her. “I was so petrified of going through that again.”

Once Jones was taken to Project ROSE, she was not permitted to make a phone call. She said she wasn’t read her Miranda rights, and when she asked to speak to a lawyer, “They took me to a prosecutor,” she said. “I said, ‘No, I want a public defender.’ They said there’s no public defender here.” Project ROSE’s factsheet states, “Clients at Project ROSE do not require legal representation, as they are not under arrest.” Still, a prosecutor interviews the sex workers brought to Project ROSE. “They were trying to get me to admit that I was working,” said Jones.

Monica Jones was familiar with the DIGNITY program, which prosecutors would now require her to complete for her charges to be dropped. When she was arrested on charges of “manifesting” prostitution in 2008, she opted to participate in the program, though she didn’t agree with its messages. “In there, you know, they said, ‘these women are weak, they need help, this [sex work] is a bad thing,'” Jones told Rewire. “And I said, ‘well, you know, I’m doing it because the money is good, and I can make my own hours, and I’m going to school.'”

“They kept saying, ‘this is battered women syndrome.’ I’d say, ‘I have a right to my own body,’ and they would try to shush me up.”

Mid-way through the program, Jones said she was asked by staff to not come back. “I got a phone call saying I had passed the class, and I didn’t need to come back anymore.”

“They didn’t want my personality to rub off on the other girls,” Jones said.

Cathy Bauer, DIGNITY program director, would not confirm if Monica Jones had been a participant in the program or discuss any additional details of the DIGNITY program.

Because Jones had been through the DIGNITY program already, when she was charged with “manifestation” in May, she was found ineligible for Project ROSE. But she didn’t find out until three months later, when in August she was sent a summons to appear in court on charges of “manifesting” prostitution.

Last fall, after receiving her summons, Jones was coming home to her apartment late one night, she told Rewire, and two Phoenix police officers were waiting in the vestibule of her building. “I didn’t pay no mind, just tried to keep my head down. But one of the cops turned and recognized me and said, ‘Are you staying here now? I haven’t seen you out on Van Buren (an area known for sex work). Do you still go out there?'”

“Seeing the cops over from Van Buren at my complex was just weird,” she said.

Monica Jones is now a student in the same social work program at ASU that employs Roe-Sepowitz, the Project ROSE founder. Jones spent the day before last Thanksgiving—two days before her birthday—in court. Her “manifestation” charge will now go to trial on March 14, and she will plead not guilty. SWOP-PHX has raised funds to cover her legal fees. They have also, along with their supporters the Best Practices Policy Project, filed a report with United Nations’ Human Rights Committee, alleging violations of due process and discriminatory policing connected to Arizona’s anti-prostitution law enforcement and Project ROSE.

“What I hope is I’m found not guilty,” Jones told Rewire. “I hope the truth comes out—yes, that I was profiled. I hope to be vindicated.”