There is that age old saying: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” But what happens when that “time” extends into something else – something that may be far dastardlier than the initial crime, itself?

Thousands of women serving time in prisons, all across the US, are being ensnared in a despicable web of human trafficking. What is most disturbing about it is that it preys upon the one thing all of these women share – vulnerability.

In many states, personal information of inmates is uploaded online, such as their criminal records, release date, and home address. Also included are physical attributes such as height, weight, age, and race, along with their mug shots. The government has essentially concatenated the perfect catalogue for sex traffickers – and hand-delivered it to these master manipulators.

“We have found that prisoners are particularly vulnerable to sex traffickers in a number of ways,” explained Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, Director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at Arizona State University.

“Firstly, their arrest information and photo is public, so sex traffickers can literally shop for potential victims by looking at arrest logs.  They can put money on their (the women’s) “books” or accounts, without any regulation or oversight so the women are in debt to them.

“Other ways we see incarcerated women sex trafficked is through another woman who is in love with/under the control of a pimp/trafficker. She enters the prison and finds the most vulnerable women (drug addicted, no family, no money) and puts her pimp into contact with them.  He writes to them, builds a connection and a relationship, and when the woman is released, she goes with him.

“Finally, a sex trafficker can use bail as debt bondage for a victim.  We have had a case in our research from a large US city where the pimp/trafficker took the victim back to the bail bondsman and recalled her bail bond and she went back to jail. She had not earned enough money for him prostituting and told him she wanted to leave.”

It is an easy playing field, where the prettiest and youngest are cherry-picked. Pimp-controlled prostitution is said to be one of the most ruthless kinds of trafficking that currently exists in the States.

In a documentary by the Guardian called The Trap, a convicted sex trafficker, Anthony Harris said.

“The finesse pimp is the one that he doesn’t care if she leaves. If she stays, she’s going to do what she’s supposed to do. We are family but we are going to run it like a business at the end of the day, and if you’re not doing what you are supposed to be doing: there is the door.

“Then you have the drug pimp, Those are the ones that’s (sic) forcing the girls to do stuff because they’re addicted to a drug and nine times out of ten, the girl is addicted to drugs.

“A gorilla pimp is the worst kind of pimp. They beat their women up, they tie them up, they do all the kinds of crazy stuff to these girls to kind of make the girls stay around.”

The obvious question might be why the authorities have not taken better steps to safeguard these women, but Dr. Roe-Sepowitz attests that it is not that straightforward.

“The purpose of the criminal justice system is to protect the public from the defendants/arrestees/prisoners,” she said. “To see them as the victim is quite outside what is typical and recognising the vulnerabilities of potential sex trafficking victims is often beyond the scope of services that inmates receive. We are trying to change this and have recently increased our work to train medical, mental health, and corrections staff at our jails in Maricopa County to recognise the signs of sex trafficking and the tools to identify victims.  We continue to work to develop enough services for the victims once they are released.”

Many of the victims, with whom Dr. Roe-Sepowitz has worked, have spent time in jail or prison due to the forced criminality that goes along with the prostitution in sex trafficking situations.  These women are often instructed to rob their victims; deal drugs for the sex traffickers; steal things; and are sold for sex over and over again.

“It is critically important that we teach persons working with inmates/prisoners that there are victims of sex trafficking among the people they guard,” added Dr. Roe-Sepowitz. “This includes men, women, and transgender persons.  Victims are not all addicts, are all colours, and races, but the vulnerabilities are similar to most people involved in the criminal justice system.  These vulnerabilities include childhood maltreatment; sexual abuse during childhood; a parent in prison; drugs used in their homes growing up; a pattern of running away; and drug use.”

In the United States, having a criminal record further exacerbates the problem.  These women may already be whitewashed with every job or apartment they try to find upon their release. Out of prison, they face a world where opportunities and even forgiveness may seem to be limited. Tragically, to the women, sometimes the only lure to these traffickers can be the only sense of security or stability these women feel that they have – even if it is false.