MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
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)
MATTHEW DIXON: 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.
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.
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?
BRITTANY MESSINA: You have a nice car. I'll do whatever you want.
SOTO: You sure?
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.
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?
MESSINA: There's a nice inn straight down.
SOTO: You gonna be good?
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.
MESSINA: I have no money on me. You can check my pockets.
DIXON: You understand your rights?
LYDEN: That girl over there is someone you're working with or just a friend or?
MESSINA: My best friend. My best friend.
LYDEN: She rats out her best friend trying to bargain with Dixon.
MESSINA: I'll tell you her whole entire name. She's got a warrant for arrest and everything.
DIXON: OK. What room is she in?
MESSINA: Will this benefit me?
DIXON: What room is she in?
MESSINA: Let me ask you a question. Is there any way that I'm not going to jail?
DIXON: Let's step outside for a minute.
MESSINA: Yes, sir.
LYDEN: And when they do, moments later, she sees her best friend, who's just been handcuffed.
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.
MESSINA: So is there hope (unintelligible).
DIXON: There's always hope everywhere.
MESSINA: All right, thank you. All I want...
LYDEN: Her boyfriend calls and she's allowed to answer. She refers to him as daddy.
DIXON: Dixon says that he's most likely also her pimp.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING)
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.
DIXON: Lifestyle? What lifestyle?
MESSINA: This one.
MESSINA: Minus the police.
DIXON: Describe it for me.
MESSINA: That is (unintelligible) easy money. You'll have an easy job searching me. I don't have nothing.
DIXON: How much money do you make a day, Brittany?
DIXON: $500 a day.
MESSINA: I made 700 on Valentine's Day.
DIXON: Is that having sex with guys or is that - what is it?
MESSINA: Sorry, my pants are falling.
DIXON: Is that from having sex with people is that...
MESSINA: Blow jobs.
DIXON: Blow jobs.
LYDEN: So, you have a drug habit.
LYDEN: And you've been street walking for five years.
LYDEN: And you have a four-year-old.
LYDEN: So what's that picture look like to you?
LYDEN: Now, do you think you have big problems?
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.
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: 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.
KENNETH BAKER: 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.
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.
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: 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: 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.
NORRIS: 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: 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.
BECCA STEVENS: 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: One of the former prostitutes, Penny Hall, who lived under a bridge for 10 years, said the thistle flower is the women's emblem.
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: Jacki Lyden, NPR News.
NORRIS: And to see a video about the women of Magdalene, go to our website, npr.org. Jacki's series continues tomorrow on MORNING EDITION with the stories of two women who've completed the program, but only one succeeds.
NORRIS: 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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.