I spent my first night as an inmate at the Cook County Jail dreaming about the day I’d get out.
I had no idea that four years later, I’d return every day as a full-time employee of the very place that locked me up.
My story broadly follows a pattern that is common for victims of prostitution. Domestic violence led me to the streets, which led me to drugs, which led me to prostitution, which, thankfully, then led me to jail. I never expected that jail would be my saving grace. Now I hope to make it the same for more victims like me.
The type of treatment and care given to prostituted women and victims of sex trafficking at the Cook County Department of Corrections is different than many other jails. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart focuses on rehabilitation services rather than punishment, providing women with the tools they need to get out and stay out of prison.This is rare. American correctional facilities are known for high recidivism rates. Nationally, 76 percent of all inmates end up back in jail within five years. Other developed countries have much lower numbers — Nordic countries have recidivism rates between 20 to 30 percent.
But in the nation’s drug courts — criminal sentencing that typically includes mandatory addiction treatment — research shows that recidivism drops significantly. Among the nation’s 2,700 drug courts, Cook County is considered in the 10 model programs for prisoners. The jail has seen an 81 percent drop in felony convictions three years following prisoner release for those who have gone through their drug court program.
I believe this comes down to how we approach prison time for the incarcerated. We need to treat prisoners as individuals who need counseling, resources, and preparation for the outside world — not bad people who deserve punishment. If more jails and prisons ran like Cook County’s, especially for victims of prostitution, I believe that we could bring these numbers down.
If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.