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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.

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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.

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Report From 2011’s Sex Worker Open University

I’ve been a sex worker rights activist for going on a decade now, and I’ve lived in New York all that time. My focus in the early years was very local, meaning that I was concerned with what was happening in my own life and the lives of the people I worked with and cared about. I wanted us to stay safe, get rich, and not deal with douchebag clients – you know, all the dreams a girl could have. When I got involved with $pread magazine and became an editor in 2005, I started to pay more attention to what was happening outside of my little bubble. Being responsible for the news section of the magazine meant that I started to learn more about what was happening in sex worker communities not just across the country, but also across the world.

Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work more closely with sex worker rights activists globally, and I gotta say that it’s kind of blown my mind. In the fall of 2009 I spent a week in rural India, a few hours south of Mumbai, with SANGRAM and the sex workers at VAMP. We collaborated on a video about sex worker organizing in India, and it gave me immense respect for the work these activists have been doing. In India, there are sex worker unions, and hundreds of sex workers show up at events and rallies. They are loud, and they are a unified community struggling hard for their rights and getting some traction. During one conversation I had with an older woman about the differences in our activism, she said, “In America, you have everything. You have cameras. You use the internet. But you aren’t fighting the government together the way we are. You need to come together and collectivize. It’s the only way.” It really resonated with me. In a place where sex workers have to walk to one well that serves the neighborhood to get water for their huts, their community is infinitely stronger than ours, probably because there’s less obsession with individuality.

Since that fall, I’ve been seeking out other opportunities to learn more about the global situation of sex workers. This past month, I got the opportunity to go to London for Sex Worker Open University, a nearly weeklong event organized by a collective and held in the Arcola Theatre complex in Hackney. There were many sessions every day, an interesting blend of skill shares by and for sex workers, and presentations about policy and activism work. The event ran from Wednesday, October 12 through Sunday, October 16– you can see the full program here and feel envious – and on the Friday, we had an evening of conversation among activists from all over the world.

Thinking About Cyntoia And My Black Body

Cyntoia Brown. (Via Youtube)

Content warning: this piece contains accounts of child sexual abuse and violence against a sex working minor as well as discussion of structural violence. 

I spent my teen years selling sex on the internet. I grew up on the Craigslist Erotic Services section, finding men who would pay me for something I didn’t take seriously because I’d been robbed of the chance to do so. I’d been raped at 12 by my next door neighbor after months of molestation, and subsequently passed around the neighborhood to two other perverts. One was an Albanian fella who definitely sold women, and he could have ended up trafficking me as well. In hindsight, my luck has been insane.

Cyntoia Brown’s story feels too close to home. Brown killed one of her abusers at the age of 16. When I was 16, I met a man on Yahoo Personals who seemed nice. After a four hour session, he didn’t want to pay. He kicked me out of the house and I had to find my way home. He could have killed me, and I thought he would, because he grabbed me so hard to throw me out. That session could have been my last, and no one would have been the wiser. If I’d been abducted, my mom would have been looking for a ghost; she had no idea what I was doing.

The Ten Most Popular Tits And Sass Posts of 2014

Faithfully bringing you media by and for sex workers since 2011. (Photo by Flickr user carterse, "Winston Retrieves The News")
Faithfully bringing you media by and for sex workers since 2011. (Photo by Flickr user carterse, “Winston Retrieves The News”)

1. “The Erasure of Maya Angelou’s Sex Work History,” by Peechington Marie, 5/29

2. “The Fifth Annual Vagina Beauty Pageant: A Judge’s Notes,” by Elle, 8/8

3. “Discussing Other People’s Lives: Social Work and Student Sex Workers,” by Annie O’Neill and Adrienne Graf, 4/11

4. “I Don’t Care About Clients,” by Olive Seraphim, 2/19

5. “Stop AB1576: Compulsory Condom Use Won’t Make Porn Performers Safer,” by Cyd Nova, 5/20

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.