I was so excited as I entered the courtroom today. I had just returned to teaching my class “Live A Life You Love” at the jail after a six week absence to honor some other commitments I had made and Maggie – one of the girls I had been working with for about a year over two separate incarcerations – had agreed to enter the Safe House if I would go to court that afternoon and ask the public defender if she could be released on probation. Otherwise she faced a one year sentence. I could tell over the past few months she had gone through a lot of self reflection and that she was ready to give up the life and take the opportunity that was offered.
This wasn’t a decision I was making on the spur of the moment or a result of being glad to be back teaching at the jail…I had been holding a bed open at the condo for several months in anticipation of Maggie’s arrival. I had talked it over with someone whose judgement I have come to trust and after a quick stop at the office, I headed back to the Seminole County Courthouse and up to wait in the courtroom and waylay the public defender to plead Maggie’s case. It was serendipity that he was standing outside the courtroom with her file practically waving at me. I introduced myself and proceeded to pitch him on the idea that Maggie was really ready and she had a;ready agreed as long as the court would go along with it. I gave him my card and briefly went over the program objectives and gave him a copy of the case management plan.
I told him about the fact that she was most definitely sex trafficked and her more serious charges were the result of trying to avoid the act of prostitution. I told him about her identification being missing and how OOTL was willing to help her with drug treatment, career counseling, housing, transportation – whatever she needed to make her life a life she loved living. He conceded that he has seen her demeanor change over the past few months and after a few minutes of over-informing him about the dynamics of sex trafficking and prostitution, he was on Team Maggie and ready to take her case to the prosecutor. He asked me to stay and I happily agreed.
The doors opened and I took a seat in the second row. The inmates that were first to go before the judge were led into the courtroom chained and I saw that Maggie was not among them. I looked around for the public defender but he was already deep into his extensive file folders heavily laden with cases that he was due to represent. One of the court officers was telling another officer that there were another 20 inmates waiting in a holding cell after this group was done. The second officer groaned and turned to those of us in the courtroom to give us the rundown on courtroom etiquette.
I had just turned my cell phone to silent when I felt a chill in the air and the hair raise on the back of my neck. I looked up and a man sat down next to me – not giving me a second look – completely absorbed by his iPhone. I had never seen this man before but a panic rose up in me like I hadn’t felt in years.
He was her pimp. I knew it.
A thousand thoughts ran through my head. I didn’t want to be offering her safe haven with this man in the courtroom. They would make me identify myself. He would know where the safe house was. He would know who I was. He would know about my secret little project. He might be dangerous. He was a drug dealer. He was an abuser. He was a PIMP! My arch enemy! I started to break out in a sweat. I had to get out! I had to get away! Any thought I had about being some kind of Joan of Arc for prostitutes was the farthest thing from my mind in that moment.
And to add insult to injury…he stunk something horrible.
I gave him a sideways glance but he was so wrapped up in whatever was going on with his phone he didn’t notice. I got up to leave and I suddenly realized that there was no way I would be able to help Maggie get away from this guy if I couldn’t come up with a way to manage this situation. As I was entering the aisle, I decided I would stay a little longer and moved into the front row…as close to the armed deputies as I could get.
The judge entered and began calling cases. She accepted a guilty plea from the first defendant and made him aware that he could be sentenced to 150 years for having child pornography in his possession. Many other cases were continued and many cases were plead out. Finally Maggie entered the courtroom, chained and handcuffed and was directed to the jury box to await her case being called. The public defender left the courtroom and the pimp followed him out. He came back shortly after and went to talk to Maggie. The pimp didn’t return to the courtroom.
The public defender spent a good ten minutes talking to Maggie and finally came over to me and whispered that she wanted to take the year that was being offered by the state attorney.
I blurted out that the guy who had been sitting behind me was her pimp. I was almost in tears. The attorney was clearly at first surprised and then suddenly realized that Maggie had been afraid to do anything but take the jail time while the pimp sat in the second row of the courtroom, talked to her lawyer and confirmed that she was not going to try to escape his manipulation, turn evidence against him or ask for mercy from the court.
And there it was. Human Sex Trafficking in his own backyard. The fear. The intimidation. The coercion. The fraud. Everything he had seen on TV, he had suddenly – unknowingly – become a party to.
At first he tried to talk me into the idea that having Maggie out on probation was a bad idea and that it would be better if she just served her time. But his words got tangled in his throat and he gave up trying to convince me that this was what was best for Maggie. He tried not to hang his head but he knew – he KNEW – this girl was the most common kind of sex trafficking victim.
The kind that no one cared about.