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Project ROSE Is Arresting Sex Workers in Arizona to Save Their Souls

A moralistic program in Phoenix arrests sex workers in massive raids and brings them to a church, where they are held extrajudicially and offered alternative sentences without lawyers, judges, or due process.
Illustration by Molly Crabapple

In May 2013, Monica Jones, a student and sex-work activist, was arrested for "manifesting prostitution" by the Phoenix police.

Hers was one of more than 350 arrests carried out by Project ROSE in conjunction with Phoenix police since the program's inception in 2011.

Project ROSE is a Phoenix city program that arrests sex workers in the name of saving them. In five two-day stings, more than 100 police officers targeted alleged sex workers on the street and online. They brought them in handcuffs to the Bethany Bible Church. There, the sex workers were forced to meet with prosecutors, detectives, and representatives of Project ROSE, who offered a diversion program to those who qualified. Those who did not may face months or years in jail.


In the Bethany Bible Church, those arrested were not allowed to speak to lawyers. Despite the handcuffs, they were not officially "arrested" at all.

In law enforcement, language goes through the looking glass. Lieutenant James Gallagher, the former head of the Phoenix Vice Department, told me that Project ROSE raids were "programs." The arrests were "contact." And the sex workers who told Al Jazeera that they had been kidnapped in those windowless church rooms—they were "lawfully detained."

"Project ROSE is a service opportunity for a population involved in a very complex problem," Lieutenant Gallagher wrote to me in an email. Sex workers were criminals and victims at once. They were fair game to imprison, as long as they were getting "help."

Project ROSE is the creation of Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz. She is the director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research and a tenured professor at Arizona State University, where Monica Jones is a student. Once, she and Monica had even debated Project ROSE.

According to Project ROSE's website, most costs are absorbed by taxpayers, who pay the salaries of the officers carrying out the raids. Fifteen-hundred dollars more per day goes to the Bethany Bible Church. Volunteers, including students from Arizona State University, fill in the gaps. SWOP-Phoenix, an activist organization by and for sex workers, is filing freedom-of-information requests to discover ROSE's other sources of funding.


At first, Project ROSE may seem similar to the many diversion programs in the United States, in which judges sentence offenders to education, rehab, or community service rather than giving them a criminal record. What makes ROSE different is that it doesn't work with the convicted. Rather, its raids funnel hundreds of people into the criminal justice system. Denied access to lawyers, many of these people are coerced into ROSE's program without being convicted of any crime. Project ROSE may not seem constitutional, but to Roe-Sepowitz, "rescue" is more important than rights.

In November 2013, Roe-Sepowitz told Al Jazeera: "Once you've prostituted you can never not have prostituted… Having that many body parts in your body parts, having that many body fluids near you and doing things that are freaky and weird really messes up your ideas of what a relationship looks like, and intimacy."

"As a social worker, you're supposed to see your clients as human beings," Monica told me. "But her way of thinking is that once you're a sex worker, you can never not be a sex worker."

To the best of Google's knowledge, Roe-Sepowitz has not spoken to any press since Al Jazeera. She ignored my repeated requests for comment, and she has only been willing to engage sex workers if they risked their freedom by speaking to her class alongside members of the police.

Monica is a proud activist. Days ago she spoke to USA Today, comparing struggles against Arizona's SB 1062 bill (which permits businesses to discriminate against LGBT individuals) to those her family fought for their civil rights. On her third year of a social-work degree, Monica volunteers with battered women, works at a needle exchange, and passes out condoms to sex workers. She is a member of SWOP-Phoenix. She describes herself as "homemaker at heart," a girl who loves to cook, dance, and party, but also as an "advocate."


Monica fears she was targeted for this advocacy.

On the day cops dragged Monica to Bethany Bible Church, she had posted on, an advertising service used by sex workers, to warn them of a coming sting. The day before, she had spoken against Project ROSE at a SWOP rally.

Monica told me she had accepted a ride home from her favorite bar the night of her arrest. Once inside the car, undercover officers handcuffed her. They were rude, she said, calling her "he" and "it" (Monica is trans, but her ID lists her as a female). They threatened to take her to jail. Like many incarcerated trans women, Monica had previously been imprisoned with men. Frightened, Monica agreed for them to take her to the church.

Ineligible for Project ROSE's diversion program because of previous prostitution convictions, Monica now faces months in jail and worries incarceration will hamper her pursuit of a degree. She has been questioned on the street three times since her arrest. Once, police handcuffed her for 15 minutes.

"Because I was very outspoken about the diversion program, being out there protesting and also being a student of ASU School of Social Work, I feel like the police knew about me," Monica said. "I was very loud, so they could pick me out of the crowd."

Monica was arrested for "manifesting prostitution," a statute in the Phoenix municipal code that takes everything from starting conversations with passersby to asking if someone is an undercover cop as proof that you're selling sex. In the state where Sheriff Joe Arpaio lost massive lawsuits for racially profiling Latinos, "manifesting prostitution" is another way to discriminate. The main victims are trans women of color like Monica, who are seen as sex workers even if they're buying milk.


Some might say Project ROSE is harmless. After all, those eligible for diversion can have their charges dropped if they're among the 30 percent who manage to complete the program. But many of the hundreds arrested in Project ROSE's raids are not eligible, either because cops find drugs or weapons on them or because they've been charged with prositution before.

"All persons found to be participating in prostitution activity are breaking the law, regardless of motive," says the fact sheet Project ROSE gives the media. Those not eligible are criminals. Their freedom is a small price to pay for forcing others into a program that might remove them from "the life."

To effect this rescue, Project ROSE offers a buffet of services, including emergency housing, detox, and counseling. All these services are available without being arrested, Jaclyn Dairman, an activist with SWOP-Phoenix, told me.

But at ROSE's heart is DIGNITY Diversion, 36 hours of classroom time run by Catholic Charities.

Catholic Charities' website boasts a photo of a white girl, a tear running down her cheek. Who could resist opening their wallets before such innocence destroyed? Catholic Charities offers walking tours of the sketchy parts of town. Tender-hearted folk can gawk at sex workers. These excursions are like the slum tours beloved by Victorians. Popular enough in the 1890s to be listed in guidebooks, these tours of impoverished London neighborhoods gave a philanthropic gloss to the thrill of mingling with the poor in brothels, bars, and boarding houses. Then and now, participants got the self-satisfaction of pity mixed with the frisson of proximity to vice.


This cocktail may be why sex trafficking, as opposed to trafficking in maids or construction workers or farm labor, is always a fashionable cause.

Monica is a graduate of DIGNITY Diversion. Forced into this program by another prostitution arrest, Monica sat in a classroom from 8 AM to 4 PM, without food, while vice cops described girls overdosing on heroin. Jail was held over the heads of attendees until they finished the program, though many were going broke from their loss of sex-work income. Monica described the class as having the religious overtones of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In keeping with the program's Catholicism, no condoms were provided. Neither was child care.

"I wasn't ashamed about being a sex worker. I kept bringing this up during the diversion program," Monica told me. "Girls would ask me why I didn't feel this way. Well, 'cause I don't. I have the right to my own body."

Catholic Charities requested that Monica leave early, fearing her influence on others.

Monica's trial is in March. The prisons she may be sentenced to are brutal. Arizona is the home of the notorious Tent City, an outdoor complex of bunks and razor wire, where prisoners' shoes melt from the relentless heat.

In 2009, Marcia Powell, a sex worker serving two years for agreeing to a $20 blowjob, was left in an open cage in the maximum-security yard of Perryville Prison Complex for four hours. Guards ignored her pleas for water. Under the pitiless sun, her organs failed her. Her corpse was covered with burns.


No guard has ever been charged for Marcia Powell's death.

"There is no gray. It's illegal behavior," Dominique Roe-Sepowtitz said, speaking about prostitution to Al Jazeera.

Like Catholic Charities' hooker tours, her attitude is Victorian. To those like Roe-Sepowitz, there are God's poor and the Devil's poor. There are victims Project ROSE can save, and there are repeat offenders, unrepentant whores. They can be locked in cages and dismissed.

When the police brought Monica to the Bethany Baptist Church, she saw Dominique Roe-Sepowitz. "She refused to talk to me," Monica said. "She wanted nothing to do with me."

Why would she? It's easier to speak for people if you pretend they have no voice.

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