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For Prostitutes, An Alternative To The Streets

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For Prostitutes, An Alternative To The Streets

For Prostitutes, An Alternative To The Streets

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin this hour in Nashville, Tennessee. The city makes over 1,000 arrests a year for prostitution and solicitation. But what sets Nashville apart is how the community, and one program in particular, known as Magdalene, are fighting the cycle of prostitution.

NPR's Jacki Lyden recently went out with the vice squad on a sting operation and she reports that for street walkers in Nashville, sometimes the way back into society begins with arrest. And first, though, a warning about this story. It contains graphic language and imagery.

(Soundbite of car)

Detective MATTHEW DIXON (Nashville Police Department): We're approximately about three miles from the center of downtown Nashville.

JACKI LYDEN: This stretch of Dickerson Pike in Nashville is relentlessly forlorn - a string of low-slung motels, bail bond joints, payday loan storefronts.

Det. DIXON: I'm out front.

LYDEN: And it's the strip where prostitutes walk. I'm with photographer Stephen Alvarez. And we're out with Detective Matthew Dixon, who heads a vice squad unit here. On a scratchy radio, another undercover cop in a different car is wired up as he trolls for street walkers.

SOTO: Hey, Lorraine. You just working?

LYDEN: And although we just left the precinct, it didn't take more than a couple of minutes to find one.

Det. DIXON: He's got a girl, flagging her over at (unintelligible) Market.

LYDEN: We can hear Dixon's partner. He goes by the name Soto. And soon, we can even see the girl waving Photo down.

SOTO: Where are you walking to?

Ms. BRITTANY MESSINA: You have a nice car. I'll do whatever you want.

SOTO: You sure?

Ms. MESSINA: (beep)

LYDEN: She says she'll do whatever he wants. But there's something she wants first. Dixon understands immediately what it is and it's going to bump this sting up a notch.

Det. DIXON: So she's going to buy crack cocaine, allegedly, and come back out, smoke it and give the officer some of the crack and sex.

SOTO: (unintelligible) just about to go in there too.

LYDEN: At a dreary motel, Soto parks his car. From it there emerges a pretty young woman with flowing red hair. She looks almost collegiate in a white T-shirt and jeans. She darts into the motel and back, oblivious of the sting operation about to ensnare her.

(Soundbite of radio)

SOTO: Where do you want to go?

Ms. MESSINA: There's a nice inn straight down.

SOTO: You gonna be good?

Ms. MESSINA: (unintelligible) of course, man. I'm not...

SOTO: I see that.

LYDEN: And then it's over. She's busted. Soto grabs the drugs.

SOTO: Come on, gimme. She had it in her mouth. I was trying to get it out of her mouth.

(Soundbite of sirens)

SOTO: You so dumb, girl. Why you want to stick it in your mouth for?

LYDEN: Her name is Brittany Messina. She's 21, a mother of a four-year-old girl. She's been a prostitute for five years. Messina has a delicate, narrow face but the half moon shadows under her eyes give away her addiction. What follows at first seems almost routine for Messina and Detective Dixon.

Ms. MESSINA: I have no money on me. You can check my pockets.

Det. DIXON: You understand your rights?

LYDEN: Then desperation. Prostitution is a misdemeanor. Crack cocaine, that's a felony. And there's a school next door. That ratchets up the crime yet again. Brittany Messina's�alarm is evident. There's another young woman a short distance away, the suspected drug dealer.

That girl over there is someone you're working with or just a friend or?

Ms. MESSINA: My best friend. My best friend.

LYDEN: She rats out her best friend trying to bargain with Dixon.

Ms. MESSINA: I'll tell you her whole entire name. She's got a warrant for arrest and everything.

Det. DIXON: OK. What room is she in?

Ms. MESSINA: Will this benefit me?

Det. DIXON: What room is she in?

Ms. MESSINA: 129.

Det. DIXON: 129.

Ms. MESSINA: Let me ask you a question. Is there any way that I'm not going to jail?

Det. DIXON: Let's step outside for a minute.

Ms. MESSINA: Yes, sir.

LYDEN: And when they do, moments later, she sees her best friend, who's just been handcuffed.

Ms. MESSINA: Amanda, I love you. I'm so sorry. I didn't know, Amanda.

LYDEN: In handcuffs herself, she turns to Dixon, her emotions cascading.

Ms. MESSINA: So is there hope (unintelligible).

Det. DIXON: There's always hope everywhere.

Ms. MESSINA: All right, thank you. All I want...

LYDEN: Her boyfriend calls and she's allowed to answer. She refers to him as daddy.

Det. DIXON: Dixon says that he's most likely also her pimp.

(Soundbite of crying)

Ms. MESSINA: Daddy, please pick up for me, please. Please buy me out, please.

LYDEN: But she's going to jail. And frankly, as Brittany Messina tells Detective Dixon, she's not ready to leave this life. She's addicted to the lifestyle.

Det. DIXON: Lifestyle? What lifestyle?

Ms. MESSINA: This one.

Det. DIXON: What...

Ms. MESSINA: Minus the police.

Det. DIXON: Describe it for me.

Ms. MESSINA: That is (unintelligible) easy money. You'll have an easy job searching me. I don't have nothing.

Det. DIXON: How much money do you make a day, Brittany?

Ms. MESSINA: $500.

Det. DIXON: $500 a day.

Ms. MESSINA: I made 700 on Valentine's Day.

Det. DIXON: Is that having sex with guys or is that - what is it?

Ms. MESSINA: Sorry, my pants are falling.

Det. DIXON: Is that from having sex with people is that...

Ms. MESSINA: Blow jobs.

Det. DIXON: Blow jobs.

LYDEN: In the middle of this arrest, Brittany Messina and I sit on the sidewalk curb and talk, she in handcuffs, me with a microphone.

So, you have a drug habit.


LYDEN: And you've been street walking for five years.


LYDEN: And you have a four-year-old.

Ms. MESSINA: Right.

LYDEN: So what's that picture look like to you?

Ms. MESSINA: Life.

LYDEN: Now, do you think you have big problems?

Ms. MESSINA: Yeah, but I mean, nothing that I can't fix. And right now - now is not the time to be criticized about it. Please don't.

LYDEN: Only when she realizes that she might face serious prison time does it all seem to sink in.

Ms. MESSINA: And this is for all the girls who are thinking about doing this (beep), it's not worth it in the long run. You'll eventually lose everything you got, little by little.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

LYDEN: For prostitutes like Brittany Messina, when they're ready to give up -and it can take years - there's a place in Nashville where she might be able to get help. It's called Magdalene. Founded 14 years ago, it's a private recovery program for women with criminal histories of drug addiction and prostitution. One of its components is that it sends ex-prostitutes out to talk to the men who solicit them. This former prostitute prefers to go only by her street name, Alexis.

ALEXIS: At 9 years old he started finger painting on my body and at 10 years old I lost my virginity.

LYDEN: Welcome to the John school, where Alexis is speaking. The John school is a place where, for a fee, first-time offenders can come and attend a group session and get their records expunged. Alexis is defiant in front of her audience - men who pay women for sex.

ALEXIS: I'm no longer a prostitute and, yes, it is a part of my story. And your consequences of your actions - there will be - but it's all about choices. I choose today to come here and tell you my story because I hope to be a lighthouse for someone else to say that, you know, whatever you're looking for ain't going to be found out in a bottle, it ain't going to be found in a pipe, it ain't going to be found in a drug. It ain't going to be found in a woman who don't care nothing about you.

LYDEN: The money these money have paid to go to John school, 300 bucks each, helps sustain Magdalene and women like Alexis.

ALEXIS: You know, I'll tell this to many people, I've been doing this now for two-and-a-half years coming to these classes. We are more alike than different. And a guy pulled me aside and he said, why would you say that? I said, because we're both on that street trying to find something that would fill that empty void inside of us. You know, maybe it was fellatio, maybe it was just, you know, you didn't want to be alone or maybe it was just a quick, you know.

But, you know, it's all about why you were out there and what - the consequence of our action is, I ended up in jail having (unintelligible) shot, stabbed, raped, beaten and been in jail 89 times. And you're in a classroom in here looking at me.

LYDEN: And who is looking at her? Men of every color, class and age. A law student polishes his silver moon and star necklace. A man in a polo shirt types on an iPad.

Mr. KENNETH BAKER (Counselor): And that's the thing, a john can be anybody, Jacki.

LYDEN: Kenny Baker is a licensed addiction counselor and he voluntarily runs the john school for Magdalene.

Mr. BAKER: You know one of them, I guarantee you. I mean, it's - I mean, I went to college with these guys. So, I mean, it doesn't exclude anybody.

LYDEN: Baker's been doing this for 10 years. This is one of the most active john schools in the country.

Mr. BAKER: Hopefully, some of that stuff will stick and maybe you won't get rearrested again. I believe we certainly give you a foundation to want to address any of your issues while you're here at the john school.

LYDEN: For example, take this good-looking man in his mid-40s, one of the very few who is willing to talk. He didn't want his name used because he was looking for work.

Unidentified Man #1: I've learned quite a bit. You know, there's a lot of people here. We all got here for the same reason, either a weakness, you know, seeking something that we wasn't getting, you know, from the people that we were with.

LYDEN: And this man in his late 20s is the father of a three-year-old.

When you were having your own experience, did you think about the woman, about her past, about why she was there?

Unidentified Man #2: No. No. Just there for my own reasons.

LYDEN: Well, once you hear these women's stories, it's hard not to think about them as people.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah. I mean, I never once thought they weren't people. Just a supply and demand thing, I guess you would say. I mean, I'm demanding something and they're a supplier. I mean, I'm sorry that they ended up like that. And it's up to them to change it.

LYDEN: Perhaps it's up to a community. Scores of women like Alexis have entered Magdalene for an intensified program of housing, counseling and training based on a 12-step model. They stay for two years free and every day Magdalene gets a call from a woman who wants to come in.

Becca Stevens, Magdalene's founder, says it's her contention that women don't get into prostitution alone and they won't get out alone.

Ms. BECCA STEVENS (Founder, Magdalene): I have never met a woman coming off the streets of Nashville, Tennessee that, you know, chose prostitution as their preferred career at the age of six, seven, eight and nine. And I never met a woman coming off the streets of Nashville, Tennessee who hadn't seen the inside of prison walls.

I've had a lot of women who have cared about and served - not a lot, but several of, you know, been murdered horribly.

LYDEN: And so in the late '90s, Becca Stevens began Magdalene. Half of it is the housing and therapy at one of Magdalene's six group homes. The other half is making things at its workshop called Thistle Farms, like bath and body oils, products that Stevens says promote healing.

One of the former prostitutes, Penny Hall, who lived under a bridge for 10 years, said the thistle flower is the women's emblem.

Ms. PENNY HALL: Like rough weed like we are when we're out here on the streets, we was rough and tough, went to hell and back. And, you know, got in situations and we just survived through the cold, the drought like the thistle does. It don't need no water, comes out of concrete and it transforms there into a beautiful flower.

LYDEN: The life stories of the women at Magdalene are brutally hard. But at least there's hope. The message of Magdalene and Thistle Farms is that love heals. And that's not a happy ending. That's a challenge day by day, hour by hour.

Jacki Lyden, NPR News.

NORRIS: And to see a video about the women of Magdalene, go to our website, Jacki's series continues tomorrow on MORNING EDITION with the stories of two women who've completed the program, but only one succeeds.

Unidentified Woman: Could you imagine walking alone out here by yourself getting in a car with a stranger that you don't even know and having sex with them? We were - I think about that stuff now and, like, I was crazy.

NORRIS: That's coming up tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

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