Houston experiments with rehab for prostitutes instead of jail
HOUSTON — Tricia Chambers began her life heavily dependent on heroin and methadone. From there, she was peddled into child pornography, and by 9 she had a full-fledged career in prostitution, alongside her mother.
Now 42, Chambers is getting what she believes to be her first real chance — in a downtown Houston cellblock.
There, in stark contrast to Chambers and the other orange-clad inmates, is Kathryn Griffin Grinan — a former prostitute who now dons a business suit and heels as she transforms her nonprofit, We've Been There Done That, into a taxpayer-funded program that is teaming up with law enforcement and the court system to reform these women.
"You can be healed from this. You just got to be ready and want to," Griffin said, recalling how she went from being a college student to the lowest of street walkers. "We just prostitutes ... nobody cares about us. Well, because I was there and I felt that same way and I broke it, I knew that I could share it and break it in others."
The program has been so successful that Texas this session passed into law a bill that requires other large cities to create their own.
Adopted at birth, Griffin had a 28-year-old boyfriend at age 14. Two years later, she found herself among the youngest in a Houston college, racing to keep up with the drugs, alcohol and sex. In 1983, she joined funk singer Rick James' drug-infused "Cold Blooded" tour, developing a $30,000-a-month cocaine habit.
When the tour ended and the drugs disappeared, Griffin turned to prostitution — from call girl to mistress and finally to doped-up street hooker — to pay for the habit. After entering and failing nearly two dozen drug rehab programs, Griffin got clean 10 years ago through Houston's drug court. From that she learned what worked, and understood what didn't, and she tailor made a curriculum for prostitutes.
"There are those who have secrets," Griffin explained. "They just hold on to it, and it keeps making them sicker and sicker and sicker and sicker, and I go in and I'm like the Colonix. I go in and go deep and clean it out."
Houston, Dallas and several other Texas cities began changing how they treated prostitutes after the state Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that girls 14 and under could not be prosecuted for prostitution. The ruling has been a game changer, for juveniles and adults.
Dallas and Houston are among the cities nationwide that have set up special courts to deal with child prostitutes by putting them in recovery programs. Many, they found, had been victims of sexual or physical abuse. Some were born to mothers who were drug addicts and prostitutes themselves. Others were sold to a pimp, sometimes in exchange for a box of cigarettes.
In Houston, the court, called GIRLS or Growing Independence and Restoring Lives, was loosely modeled after other specialty courts, such as the drug court that has successfully reformed 80 percent of the nearly 400 people who have graduated since it started in 2003, including Griffin.
In September, Harris County law enforcement focused on adults, teaming with Griffin. Judges began in January sentencing women with numerous misdemeanor prostitution convictions to her program.
Working with a $40,000 a year budget, more than 30 women have been sentenced to the program, and only one or two have relapsed so far, though it is too early to measure success. The program is unique not only because it is court-ordered — unlike other private projects — but also treats the women after their release, sometimes for up to two years.
District Court Judge Maria T. Jackson has sentenced 20 women to the program, working closely with Griffin to monitor their treatment.
"Society has not been addressing the problems of the prostitutes and the women who come in for possession of controlled substance and theft. They've been locking them up when they should be dealing with the other, the underlying issues, which are the majority of these girls come from abused homes," Jackson said.
"They are the victims and they've been treated like criminals," she added.
When they're released, Griffin first takes the women shopping, "cause all they have is hooker clothes," she said. Some go to drug rehab or a halfway house. Many require job training. And all must attend Griffin's external workshop every Wednesday for at least 18 months.
Griffin said most programs ban cursing and require participants to sit nicely, but she found that doesn't work with women like Chambers who were initiated into the culture at a young age.
"I accept them for who they are. They come in, they call body parts what they called them in the street. At first they say 'bitch, ho.' I get to see who they really are and who they were ... and then I know how to start tapering it down," Griffin said.
Chambers said her mother was an international prostitute who got her into the business when she was 9. Talking about it was difficult, and in church she felt like she had a "scarlet letter."
Recently, some of those videos resurfaced online and she was asked to identify them for police. She was in a period of drug recovery, but seeing the films made her relapse, she said, leading to her fifth arrest in Texas in seven years.
Now, with the support from Griffin and the other women in her group, she has hope she won't go roll back to a life of getting high and selling her body.
"I mean you just can't get out, but this program right here shows you how to get out cause it makes us worthy that we are women," Chambers said. "We're not just a piece of meat, that we're women and I've gotten a lot of hope."
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