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“If U Only Knew How They Were Really Doing Us”: Inside/Outside Communication During A Pandemic

Support Ho(s)e presence at and general sex worker contingent of TransUpFront March for Trans Liberation way back in 2017. (Photo by Love & Struggle Photos)

by Alisha Walker and Red Schulte (written by Red, with editing and considerable input from Alisha)

Alisha Walker is a 27-year-old former sex working person originally from Akron, Ohio. She was criminalized for an act of self-defense when a regular client threatened her life and the life of a fellow worker in January 2014. A jury convicted her of second-degree murder,and Alisha was sentenced to 15 years in prison. She is currently incarcerated at Decatur Correctional Center in Decatur, Illinois.

As Alisha commented, “When [Judge] Obbish sentenced me to 15 years, he basically said that I should have died that night when my client attacked me. He basically said that my life didn’t matter as much as that white man’s. My punishment is another example of the racist and whorephobic violence of the police, courts, and prisons.”

The violent combination of racism and whorephobia, coupled with her attacker Alan Filan’s familial connections to the Chicago political machine—specifically, Filan’s sister is a judge in Cook County and was very close with Judge James M. Obbish, who presided over Alisha’s case, and Filan’s brother is a famous Illinois lobbyist—are what Alisha attributes her harsh sentencing to.

The Support Ho(s)e Collective is a small Leftist formation of currrent and former sex workers and our trusted co-conspirators and accomplices based in Chicago and New York City. We founded and continue to coordinate the Justice for Alisha Walker Defense Campaign, supporting Alisha materially and advocating for her release. We’re currently a closed collective, meaning we don’t accept new membership. We’ve decided to remain closed until Alisha is free.

Inside/outside relationships are already fraught with surveillance, especially those relationships built on mutual aid and political organizing. Alisha and I are members of the Support Ho(s)e Collective. We’re also affiliated with Survived & Punished, Alisha as an inside survivor/organizer whose story has been uplifted, and I as an organizer with the NY formation. Alisha is in regular contact with the Uptown People’s Law Center, often encouraging others experiencing rampant sexual, medical, or gender-based discrimination inside to advocate for themselves alongside UPLC.

Alisha will be the first person to remind you that what happened to her is nothing new. She’ll be the first one to cite the long history of anti-sex worker stigma and criminalization. Early on when we talked about Mariame Kaba’s writings on Black women having “no self to defend” in this country, LeLe would light up with angry excitement. She’d exclaim, “Yeah, that’s exactly fucking right, they don’t want us to survive. But sometimes we do, and here I am.”

What follows is an accounting of conditions inside as Alisha and our other comrades have recounted them. We’ve pulled a selection of call summaries, video visits, and email correspondences to highlight what communication and organizing to meet Alisha and her community’s needs has been like since the pandemic hit.

**

Writing about surveillance experiences makes them real for people outside who’ve yet to be impacted by incarceration personally. We must detail the arbitrary cruelty of prisons and the mundane chaos that is always present in them, bearing down on our friends and comrades inside. Alisha’s ability to report to and communicate with outside organizers like myself and our fellow Support Ho(s)e comrades during this ongoing pandemic is essential. Alisha and I both believe that taking the lead from our most impacted community members—incarcerated people—during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic will activate our networks to further our practices of mutual aid and care toward accessibility and freedom for us all.

Over the last two months, Alisha has used her allotted phone time to call us and give updates about herself, make sure we’re still alright out here, and update us on the prison’s ever-changing policy enforcements during the pandemic as well as the status of her entire unit. What has been consistent during these check-ins is uncertainty: uncertainty around the lack of precautions the prison is taking, about what this lockdown will bring, and how long we’ll all have to endure this pandemic moment.

There’s no such thing as social distancing in prison.” Alisha begins and ends just about every call with this truth.

Our pandemic check-ins really began on Friday (March 13th). This was when Alisha was able to get word to us that Decatur Correctional Center was going on (what would be its first) pandemic) lockdown. All in-person visitation had been cancelled. Video visits were still tentatively going forward, but it was unclear if the GlobalTel Inmate Call (GTL) tech staff would be allowed into the prison for technical support and the administration of video visitation.

Alisha also mentioned during this call that Decatur’s GTL staff were working on installing a video visitation kiosk on the unit but no one had shared with the prisoners when it might be operational. Alisha also relayed that no one seemed to be sick yet, and that she and her friends on the on unit were being proactive and buying soap at commissary—the hand sanitizer they are offered at commissary has no alcohol content, which means it’s virtually ineffective.

By this point on the outside, the existing calls to “Free Them All” had multiplied, and new people were becoming activated and radicalized because of the public health crisis the pandemic posed. An email received from Alisha on March 14th informed us that all activities at the prison have been cancelled. This included all educational classes, contract work, certification courses, and their Shakespeare rehearsals. All that remained, for now, was “chow” and gym, but she also wrote that the COs had told them that those were the next activities to be cancelled. They were currently only being allowed two 20 minute phone calls a day.

On Wednesday, March 18th, Alisha and I had another check-in call. Her voice was bright and hopeful. Alisha let us know again that so far no one inside Decatur was sick or showing symptoms. Their commissary was still open; they were still able to go and shop for themselves, with soap still available for purchase (albeit at its typical exorbitant rate). Alisha’s tone shifted halfway through the call as she began to articulate her worries about her incarcerated family: “…because so many of them are immunocompromised and the ‘care’ we all receive inside here isn’t really care.” She was horrified by the news of some prisons, like the ones in New York, cutting off access to commissary and care-packages. She said, “We all rely on shopping to survive. How will they [those incarcerated in NY] survive without commissary?”

I told her about Survived & Punished NY’s expansion of our commissary giving along with other comrades to create a “Soap Brigade” and Abolitionist Mutual Aid Fund. She was ecstatic to hear this news, and expressed hope that it would catch on as an organizing trend. I assured her that it already had.

She also reported that regular phone use had been reinstated (though this would be short lived), and that gym and chow were still happening for now. Our video visits were still on, and she wanted to encourage everyone who didn’t already have a GTL account to set one up, as well as a Connect Network email, because people inside were feeling even more isolated without access to in-person visits while on lockdown.

Alisha said the prison was taking some precautions about the COs’ health, but she didn’t feel like it was enough to keep her safe. She had been following Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s public statements and efforts and was hopeful, but she also expressed that even when people get things right on the outside, people on the inside are the ones always left behind.

Alisha wanted to express support for the Chicago Community Bond Fund‘s actions and demands that everyone be released to prevent an outbreak at Cook County. She said, “Unless Cook County releases everyone, they’re condemning us in here to illness and likely death.” She was also very worried about friends and comrades at Logan Correctional—it was almost impossible to get word about their well-being.

Even though her Shakespeare theatre-troupe practice and her classes had been cancelled for now, she was practicing her lines, doing math problems, and working through her Introduction To Soil horticultural science text on her own time. She had gotten back into writing poetry and making art to process this new trauma of being trapped inside prison during a pandemic as well.

Those of us on the outside who are close to Alisha had already weathered her being put on “B Grade” with no access to email, phone calls (except for “legal calls” with lawyers), and video visits a few times before. We continue to endure retaliation from the mailroom COs who censor and lose her mail with abandon. We’ve been through so many versions of this communication breakdown and yet there are different fears and anxieties we’re holding because of this new contagion.

**

Can You Make Six Figures A Year Off Reply Guys? Caroline Calloway Thinks So.

The week before the health department shut down all bars was a brutal one at my club. The upside was that there were so few customers and so little cash changed hands that it didn’t feel like we were getting exposed to much of anything besides boredom. The owner was berating dancers for not working more amid this virus hysteria, and getting their names wrong while he did so. Nobody was jumping to pick up dead shifts, and most of his dancers had abandoned their work ethic and any sense of duty to attend a Tool concert.

Around the same time, it was apparent that Fox News had begun to acknowledge that a pandemic was indeed occurring. This meant that the owner, in turn, had started to take it seriously. Now he was even more proactive than the health department, and we had to come in at 10:30 a.m. and empty our lockers because he urgently needed to eradicate the viruses thriving inside them.

We left with our trash bags full of mangled, body-spray-doused spandex. Like the rest of the country, some of us adopted the sleep schedules of koalas. Some of us obsessively consumed the news like we were trying to crack a code. Some of us measured time only by examining our pubes. Some of us took advantage of liquor stores being deemed essential. All of us watched Tiger King. After getting past the initial shock and unorthodox food cravings, many of us joined the masses of Royally Fucked sex workers everywhere in creating OnlyFans accounts. 

I haven’t done the OnlyFans thing partially because I am on pandemic unemployment assistance as an independent contractor. It took multiple applications and waiting for the state to to wait on the federal government, but it’s been a godsend. I can stop panicking until July 31st. I’m also not on OnlyFans because it’s a lot of hard work and that’s only exacerbated by this whole end-of-days thing. 

I’ve watched my friends navigate OnlyFans and discover that there’s all kinds of paraphernalia to research and buy, like glitchy Bluetooth selfie clickers. One friend ordered an interactive phone-app controlled vibrator, and was devastated when it malfunctioned during her first live show. Another friend has been making content in her microscopic studio apartment. She assembled and installed a Murphy bed and has done an impressive job of taking hot photos that don’t give away the limited space in which she’s working (shit, I’m impressed just by the bed itself). 

A third friend was completely thwarted from pursuing an OnlyFans hustle when her driver’s license was rejected for being too beat up and the DMV couldn’t get her in until May 16th. She’s been discreetly selling videos on an app that is not sex-worker friendly (LOL, like any are) and crossing her fingers that she doesn’t get busted.

A fourth friend recently couldn’t deliver on the type of video a subscriber was requesting, because she’s quarantined with her ex and he was in the next room. And like many strippers who went from physically demanding jobs to staying home, she’s gained weight. It’s not easy to shoot, edit, and post nude photos and videos when you’re struggling with your body image.

A fifth friend isn’t comfortable working online because she’s pursuing a career in a male-dominated field where she doesn’t want to be outed as having been a sex worker. Instead, she’s putting all her stuff in storage and moving into a yurt. 

If so many people I care dearly about weren’t using OnlyFans as a way to make ends meet while bracing for a depression and worrying about dying, it would be at least slightly comical that “minor influencer” Caroline Calloway bragged on Sunday that she was “currently looking at a $223,800 annual salary from OnlyFans.”

Sex Workers: YOU CAN AND SHOULD REQUEST PANDEMIC RELIEF

Eleanor Roosevelt at SheSheShe Camp for Unemployed Women in Bear Mountain, New York. (photo via wikicommons)

So we’re about a month into strip clubs being shut down. Before that, most in-person sex workers had already been worried about the potential of getting or spreading COVID-19 (the illness caused by the coronavirus) at work, and probably noticed a significant dip in business. Most times we’d be SOL when it comes to accessing unemployment benefits, since save for dancers at a handful of strip clubs, we’re not employees on payroll. But that changed when Congress passed the CARES Act in March, which expanded unemployment benefits to independent contractors.

There have been a lot of misleading screenshots and headlines implying that sex workers are excluded from pandemic relief. While it’s true that some adult entertainment businesses are theoretically excluded from the Small Business Administration’s disaster loans, sex workers as workers are just as eligible for stimulus payments and the expanded unemployment assistance that’s out there as any worker. Even if you’ve been operating as a business, you’re eligible as a sole proprietor to apply for unemployment now (Unfortunately, that only goes for citizens and permanent residents. If you are an undocumented worker in need of help, there are a lot of sex worker mutual aid funds that are prioritizing workers who can’t access government aid. Here are a few lists of those funds and resources for finding help. This COVID-19 resource post from Kate D’Adamo on Slixa also has information on other types of help available for all workers, as well as some myth busting on those Small Business Administration loans—you can still apply, and though there’s a chance you’ll be denied, you might just get it. “The definition of that term [“prurient sexual performance”] is based on the application of what’s called the Miller obscenity test,” D’adamo writes, “and a lot of things are actually fine – sex shops, sex educators, probably even strip clubs. Where it gets trying is anything involving the internet, because of competing court decisions that the Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on.” D’adamo also notes that the whole process is a “clusterfuck” because banks don’t have enough information from the Fed to process applications, and “no one’s getting shit from anyone anytime soon, prurient sex-related or not.”)

There are two main types of assistance for individuals available: The one-time $1200 ($2400 for married couples and an additional $500 per child) Economic Impact Payments from the federal government, and the expanded unemployment benefits that cover the self-employed. Unemployment benefits are administered at the state level, so you’ll need to find your state’s unemployment website to start a claim. Maybe you’ve heard that the pandemic levels of unemployment have swamped unemployment claims? It’s not a great process to begin with, and having to revamp the whole deal hasn’t gone quickly or smoothly. But it’s a good idea to go ahead and start on the process. Supposedly workers will be able to get back payments, so try to get records of everything you can dating back to when you had to stop working due to the pandemic.

Here’s how to get started.

Coronavirus and the Predictable Unpredictability of Survival Sex Work

Social distancing.

With the coronavirus hitting a market which has still not recovered from SESTA/FOSTA and the Backpage seizure, sex work has taken a double whammy in a two year period, and it is most adversely affecting those of us who have the least power, influence, and resources. Still, for us survival sex workers—people who work just to survive or barely survive, people who aren’t making a revenue, people who may get one or two clients in a week even though we work tirelessly all day and night to hustle for clients—while this situation has only made it harder for us, it’s always been hard for us. When a reporter asked me recently how the coronavirus had affected my work, I told them that it’s hard out there right now, but low income, survival, and street-based workers have always struggled. Whether hardships come in the form of SESTA, coronavirus, scary/sketchy clients, or law enforcement stings, survival sex workers have always had to bear the worst of it. Along those lines, for example, sex work/tech collective Hacking/Hustling’s recent study “Erased: The Impact of SESTA/FOSTA And The Removal of Backpage” found that SESTA/FOSTA’s passing had very little effect on the lives of non-internet-using street and survival sex workers of Whose Corner Is It Anyway in Western MA, whose work was already fraught with vulnerability, surveillance, and criminalization and whose earnings were already meager.

In this way, experiencing a drastic change in circumstance because of the coronavirus is in many cases a sign of how good someone has it in the whorearchy. Recent articles in publications like Buzzfeed News or the Huffington Post focus on interviewing sex workers who have experienced a severe and swift change in their economic stability as a result of COVID-19. Of course, the negative impacts of coronavirus on sex workers are tragic and warrant the public’s and the greater sex working community’s compassion. However, the unspoken truth about many more upwardly mobile workers who’ve experienced these negative impacts is that for them, life and death struggles for survival may only just recently have become a reality. I.e.—one has to be up before they can come down.

This isn’t to dismiss or make light of the real pain many workers are feeling now. It just hurts my heart that I feel like nobody—not even other sex workers—cares about the survival workers for whom things are perennially difficult no matter what. I hear other workers complaining about the low ball offers they are now getting from clients and I think to myself that I’ve never had the luxury of setting a target fee and turning away anyone who won’t meet it. Before this whole coronavirus thing started, I was offering bareback anal for $40, because that was all I could get and I didn’t have the luxury of telling guys to fuck off. I still can’t say with certainty what my HIV or STI status is because all of my clients wanted bareback and I was too scared they wouldn’t want to see me if I made them wear a condom. I feel like mainstream society gives zero fucks about those of us for whom this has always been a reality, and sometimes I feel like a lot of sex workers who aren’t survival or street give zero fucks too.

International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers: Reliving the Decade You Survived

(Photo by Steve Rhodes of International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers 2010, via Flickr and the Creative Commons.)

By Caty Simon and Josephine

Ten years ago, the remains of four sex workers — Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes and Amber Lynn Overstreet Costello — were found close to Gilgo Beach, near Long Island, New York. The bodies were unearthed after a frantic 911 call from another worker: Shannan Gilbert spent 21 minutes telling a dispatcher a man was trying to kill her, then she disappeared. It became evident that a serial killer was targeting area sex workers he met on Craigslist, so the Suffolk County police commissioner asked the community for help. In response, the local SWOP demanded amnesty for sex workers, a request  the police department scoffed at. The case featured multiple suspects — including a former Suffolk County police chief — and remains ongoing.

That case, which came to be known as the Long Island Serial Killer case as it expanded to 10 victims, demonstrated how the internet revolutionized sex work, taking it online and out of the shadows without the help of pimps and traffickers. The public, however, interpreted the case differently; Craigslist made sex-for-money easy and accessible — and dangerous, it was surmised. The notion that the police department had erred couldn’t compete against the lurid narrative of sex workers naively meeting their killers online. Robert Kolker, who wrote a book on the subject, told TAS in 2013 that he was certain that the case might have unfolded differently if  the women weren’t sex workers, or “a different class of people” as he put it. Either way, Craigslist’s Adult ads section shuttered soon after, marking the beginning of the end of the internet as a safe haven. 

Today is Dec. 17, the annual day we rally to end violence against sex workers, and the last such day in this decade. The environmental changes sex workers have endured are too many to list but, in the day’s spirit of reflection and rememberance, we’re certain it’s paramount to revisit the challenges we’ve faced and the hard work we’ve endured.