R.I. in ‘eye of the storm’ in sex trafficking, prostitution

By Lynn Arditi
Published April 19, 2009

By Lynn Arditi
Journal Staff Writer

Just around the corner from the restaurants along Atwells Avenue, Tammy Dudman scrunched down inside a parked rental car outside a suspected brothel and counted “Johns.”

She wore a New York Yankees cap pulled low on her forehead; whenever someone looked in her direction she quickly ducked.

The article was published on Page A1 of the Providence Journal, April 19, 2009.
The article was published on Page A1 of the Providence Journal, April 19, 2009.

A man walked through an unmarked door.

“That makes seven!”

Dudman and Kim Harris, co-directors of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, were demonstrating the surveillance work that they say has helped them identify 32 brothels in the state, including 19 in Providence.

On this rainy, Friday night they watched men enter in groups of two and three. Neatly dressed, they appeared to range in ages from early 20s to mid 50s.

At one point, three men walked up to the door and tried to open it, but it was apparently locked. After a few minutes, they walked away. Seconds later, a woman appeared in the doorway. She looked Asian and in her 30s, wearing a red apron.

“That’s the mamasan!” said Dudman.

“That’s Angie!”

A mamasan (pronounced mama-san) is a term used for women in Southeast Asia who supervise brothels. Angie is the name they’d seen on Internet “John chats.”

The woman they called Angie looked up and down the block several times, but, seeing no one, she retreated back inside.

Five minutes later, the John count was up to 13. Then, nobody went in or out.

Forty-five minutes later, the same men began to file out.

“You notice how there’s a rush of guys?” Dudman said. “And then, there’s not.”

The House Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on a bill which would increase penalties for human trafficking on April 8, 2009. The bill is an attempt to protect women and girls from being coerced into prostitution in brothels in Rhode Island. Tammy Dudman, left, co-chair of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, waits to testify in favor of the bill. At right is Kim Harris, also with the Coalition. The Providence Journal/Connie Grosch
Tammy Dudman, left, co-chair of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, waits to testify in favor of a bill that would increase penalties for human trafficking, on April 8, 2009. At right is Kim Harris, also with the Coalition. The Providence Journal/Connie Grosch

The public perception of prostitutes used to be of women who walked the streets, easily spotted by police and neighbors. In Providence, complaints about prostitution once inspired public outrage and police crackdowns.

But over the last 10 years, the police say, prostitution has moved indoors. Statewide, arrests for prostitution have fallen sharply – down 50 percent, on average, from 2000 through 2004 compared with the previous four years, according to FBI statistics –– and raids such as one April 9 at a Warwick “spa” are rare.

Rhode Island has no law prohibiting prostitution indoors. Now, state lawmakers have once again introduced bills to toughen prostitution and sex-trafficking laws and advocates are organizing to get the issue back onto the public radar.

“Rhode Island has become America’s human trafficking safe haven,” the Rev. Donald C. Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, wrote in a recent statewide e-mailing. “There can be no doubt that this is 21st century slavery and we have placed ourselves in the eye of the storm.”

Nobody knows for certain how many brothels there are in Rhode Island. And no sex-trafficking cases have been prosecuted in the state in nearly a decade.

But coalition members and some law enforcement officials say that there is evidence to suggest that prostitution and sex-trafficking –– where commercial sex is induced by force, fraud or coercion –– are on the rise.

They point to the increasing number of advertisements for Rhode Island “spas” offering “body rubs” in newspapers such as the Phoenix in Providence and Boston, and references to Rhode Island brothels on Internet chat rooms where customers rate their services.

“If you see how these people are advertising in newspapers or on the Internet, you’d almost be foolish as a prostitute to go out into the street and flag down cars,” said state police Detective Capt. David Neill. “I think it’s telling us that more prostitution is occurring indoors.”

Indoor prostitution is a problem which, law enforcement officials say, the state is uniquely ill-equipped to tackle. Rhode Island is the only state in the country, except for certain counties in Nevada, which has no prohibition against prostitution that occurs indoors. The prohibition was removed in 1980 after the state’s prostitution law was challenged in a federal court case. And while the state in 2007 enacted its own law against sex-trafficking, not a single case has been prosecuted. (Nor have federal authorities prosecuted a single case in Rhode Island under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed in 2000.)

“In order for there to be interstate transport or travel, there has to be an underlying state law that makes the act [of prostitution] illegal,” said Thomas Connell, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Rhode Island’s prostitution laws “certainly create some hurdles, but we’re not willing to say we can’t overcome or eliminate those hurdles.”

LAW ENFORCEMENT officials and victims’ advocates agree that the state laws need to be changed. In recent weeks, members of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking and their supporters have met with local clergy, testified at State House hearings, circulated fliers and sent mass e-mailings urging people to come to a State House rally Tuesday.

The coalition is pushing for a stiffer anti-trafficking law. Two bills sponsored by Rep. Joanne M. Giannini, D-Providence, and Sen. Rhoda E. Perry, D-Providence, would mandate harsher penalties (fines of no less than $40,000 and up to life imprisonment) for anyone found guilty of trafficking for sex someone under 18, regardless of whether there was proof of coercion.

Under the state’s current human-trafficking law, “you could have a 14-year-old in a brothel and if she says there’s no coercion, then it’s not a violation of the trafficking law,” said Donna M. Hughes, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and an expert on the international trafficking of women and children.

State and local police also want lawmakers to pass bills sponsored by Giannini and Sen. Paul V. Jabour, D-Providence, that would make it a crime to solicit or engage in sex for money, regardless of where the activity takes place. The bills would mandate equal penalties for those who attempt to engage the services of a prostitute. Giannini also submitted an amendment to her legislation that would exempt from prosecution women who were “compelled into prostitution.”

“The opposition has always come from the women’s groups who feel and are afraid that we are targeting women,” Giannini said. “Basically what I’m trying to do is put in a provision that would say that if these women are victims of trafficking or are forced into it, that they not be charged.”

The coalition, Dudman said, is opposed to “prosecuting victims,” in this case, the prostitutes. (She said the coalition has “not taken a position” on the prostitution bill.)

Her views on prostitution have deep roots. For eight years after her parents split, she said, her father worked as a prostitute in San Francisco to support a drug habit. She and her sister were raised by her mother in Missouri. The last time she saw her father he was living in a halfway house. His mind was so ravaged by drugs that he had a hard time grasping that she wasn’t the same little girl that he’d left before the age of 2.

Dudman is now 39 and a professional artist. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, where she teaches computer animation.

The coalition grew out of a November 2006 gathering of more than 100 people at a forum in Providence on human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children in the sex industry. The forum was sponsored by Mayor David N. Cicilline and the National Council of Jewish Women.

Just four months earlier, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that federal agents had arrested 31 brothel owners, managers and middlemen on charges that they operated a human trafficking ring that involved “an extensive network of Korean-owned brothels, stretching from Rhode Island to Washington, D.C.” The 15-month investigation began when a Korean couple who owned and operated a chain of brothels in Queens, N.Y., attempted to bribe an undercover New York City detective to stop law enforcement agents from raiding their business, according to a statement released at the time by the U.S. Department of Justice.

At the forum, the head of the Providence police’s investigative unit described conditions inside “10 to 11 brothels” around Providence where an estimated 75 to 100 South Korean women were providing sex for money. The women work in dingy massage parlors run out of store fronts, he said, some just a stone’s throw from the State House and City Hall. The women sleep on mattresses, he said, and cook over Sterno cans in back rooms.

Back then, rather than arrest the women, the police were going after the managers of these “massage parlors” and the building owners for violating nuisance ordinances –– misdemeanors which carry a $1,000 fine and up to 30 days in jail. At the time, the state required massage parlors to be licensed by the state Department of Health. When that regulation was eliminated in 2008, Rhode Island had 78 licensed massage parlors.

State immigration agents have investigated human-trafficking in Rhode Island but have yet to prosecute any cases, said Bruce Foucart, special agent in charge of the New England area for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Some of these women that are brought into Rhode Island are coming from areas like New York,” Foucart said, “where there is organized crime, whether that be Asian organized crime or other groups.”

Sex-trafficking cases are especially difficult to prosecute, he said, because investigators need the women to cooperate to prove their case. “Sometimes,” he added, “we get it by potentially charging the victim with prostitution.”

THESE DAYS, few of the suspected brothels in Rhode Island call themselves massage parlors; instead, they go by “Spa.” They operate near strip clubs and downtown boutiques; along city blocks and suburban strip malls. Some advertise in neon; others with a discreet red light in the window or no sign at all. In their ads they offer “relaxation,””table showers” and “body rubs.”

After a late night of surveillance in Providence, Dudman and Harris headed the next morning to the studio of Latino Public Radio for an on-air interview about their advocacy work. Their interviewer was Rhode Island obstetrician and Latino political leader, Dr. Pablo Rodriguez.

During the 15-minute interview, Dudman rattled off statistics:

*”Ninety-percent of children trafficked are U.S. citizens….”

*”The Department of Justice recognizes where prostitution is tolerated that human-trafficking is thriving…”

Dudman was on a roll. Then, Rodriguez cut in.

“How is it that we tolerate prostitution in the state of Rhode Island?”

Dudman stopped short. “Let me preface it,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “that our coalition does not want to see women revictimized by any law….” Instead, she wants police and investigators to do a better job of identifying prostitutes who are victims of sex-trafficking and use the information they gather from those women to build cases against the traffickers.

The show rapped up with Dudman and Rodriguez urging listeners to join the upcoming rally at the State House.

Inside the control room, the radio show’s general manager, Reynaldo Almonte, said that prostitution has been a big topic on his radio show for years. “It’s a huge business,” he said. “They make money out of the suffering of other people, like drugs.”

Prostitutes in the Latino community work out of houses, he said, passing out perfume cards with their ages and body measurements.

He showed a photograph of a young Latino girl he said was picked up from her high school in New York when she was 15 years old and brought to Rhode Island to work as a prostitute. She didn’t want to testify, he said, because she was too afraid.

“A lot of groups want to defend the prostitutes in Rhode Island because they think it’s going to hurt the women,” he said. But the logic of that argument eludes him.

“Charge the women, but give them immunity,” he said, “and charge the bastards.”

Prostitution laws

Currently legal: Prostitution indoors

Currently Illegal: Pandering (securing “a person for a house of ill fame”), first offense: up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, subsequent offenses: up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine; Loitering for indecent purposes on any public highway or street or any public or private place, first offense: up to six months in jail and $1,000 fine, subsequent offenses: up to a year in jail and a $1,500 fine; Soliciting from motor vehicles for indecent purposes, first offense: up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, subsequent offenses: up to a year in jail and a$1,500 fine; Trafficking of persons for forced labor to commit a commercial sexual act, up to 20 years in prison and $20,000 fine.

Proposed laws:

A law would criminalize providing or offering to provide sex for a fee, or permitting prostitution, regardless of location, first offense: up to six months in prison and a $250 fine, subsequent offenses: up to a year in prison and $1,000 fine. A law would criminalize owning or maintaining a brothel, engaging in prostitution in a brothel, and solicitation for prostitution, and it defines brothel as “any location, building or private residence where two or more prostitutes are engaging in prostitution, first offense for owning brothel: up to five years in prison and a $2,000 fine, subsequent offenses: up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, first offense for prostitution: up to 90 days in prison and a $500 fine, subsequent offenses: up to a year in prison and a $1,500 fine. A law would make anyone who “recruits, entices, solicits” a minor for “purposes of commercial sex acts” guilty of trafficking, maximum penalties of 25 years to life and a $40,000 fine for victims under 14, and 10 years to life and a $40,000 fine for victims 14-18.

“Some of these women that are brought into Rhode Island are coming from areas like New York, where there is organized crime.”Bruce Foucart special federal agent

Prostitution arrests

Annual arrests from 2004 to 2007 averaged half of what they did the previous four years.

Year Total

arrests* Year-to-year change

2000 382 ––

2001 303 -20.7%

2002 384 +26.7%

2003 275 -28.4%

2004 215 -21.8%

2005 110 -48.8%

2006 215 +95.5%

2007 128 -40.5%

* Total includes the arrest of six juveniles between 2000-2007.

Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports

larditi@projo.com / (401) 277-7335