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Along Came a Spiral

Danielle Thought Falling Into a Life of Drug Addiction and Prostitution Was Hard--Until She Tried to Get Out

Michelle Gienow
Danielle in a park off Garrison Boulevard where she used to turn tricks
Michelle Gienow
Danielle with her daughter
Michelle Gienow
Danielle on the porch of a house, now vacant, where she lived when she was addicted and tricking to support her habit
Michelle Gienow
Jacqueline Robarge (left), director of the support group Power Inside, and support group facilitator Cara Michele (right) after a group meeting

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 4/7/2004

Part Two of a Series

Sitting in a parked car on a brisk March afternoon, Danielle scans the sidewalk adjacent to a playground on Garrison Boulevard in West Baltimore. At night, the area is swamped with cruising johns and "prancing" women, she says, but midday traffic is light and only one woman appears to be out "working" now. Maybe 30, the woman doesn't fit the stereotypical skin-baring image of a prostitute: She wears embroidered jeans with a leather jacket tied at the waist, her boots have three-inch heels, her bobbed black wig fits neatly; and her makeup, though heavy, is not overdone.

"It's in her eyes," Danielle (not her real name) observes. "You see the way she walks . . . slow and close to the curb . . . how she keeps looking back over her shoulder to see who's riding up?" Her driver notices. "Well, she's looking for a date."

If Danielle knows the look, it's because she cast it herself many a day during a decade-long battle with heroin and crack cocaine. Raised in a churchgoing, solidly middle-class family in western Baltimore County, Danielle certainly wasn't groomed to become a substance abuser and prostitute. Then again, the 32-year-old says, add tragic love affairs to abundant access to drugs, plus an admitted lack of self-love, and you've got a recipe for a life gone astray.

While working the streets, Danielle says she was paid as much as $400 for her services by men who treated her respectfully. She says she also encountered men who "treat you like shit--who have $1,000 in their pocket and won't buy you a sandwich." As for low-end pay, Danielle puts it thus: "If you need a dime bag and you've got $8, you will perform oral sex for $2 because you can't take a short to the man."

By the late '90s, when Danielle had entered her late 20s, she'd learned the distinctions the public makes between "commercial" prostitutes (often called "sex workers") who work in strip clubs or for escort services, and street hustlers like herself who are much more visible to cops looking to make arrests--and more vulnerable to hustlers who can do far worse.

Danielle recalls, for instance, the thuggish guy who "tripped" after she'd already agreed to have sex with him, dragging her into an alley and holding a gun to her temple while he had his way. Danielle says she tried to stay calm, telling the man, "It's no thing," and praying he'd let her go without taking her life. She made it through that incident--and others--glad not to have met the same fate as Melody Brock or Danielle Fell, two suspected local prostitutes slain by John Patrick Garcia in 2002. (John Dean Powell, the so-called Patterson Park serial murderer, was charged with killing two suspected prostitutes in the mid-'90s, but convicted of only one murder; on a larger scale, "Green River" serial killer Gary Ridgeway killed 48 women, mostly prostitutes, in Washington state in the 1980s.)

Danielle says her instincts sharpened at guessing which types of men were "safe" to date, but she still occasionally miscalculated--like when she accepted a guy named Mike's invitation to join him for a daylong shopping spree in New York in the spring of 2000.

The ride north on the Peter Pan bus went off without a hitch, and Mike seemed a pleasant and generous companion. But when the pair returned to the Baltimore bus station that evening and Mike told Danielle to get a cab while he went to the rest room, things took a drastic turn.

"I had one foot inside the cab when the police stepped up," she recalls, describing her nonchalant, almost defiant retort when asked to submit to a search. "I was like, 'Sure, what do you need me to do? Lift my shirt?'" They wanted to see the contents of her red leather purse, which Danielle, "perturbed" because she was overdue for a fix, unceremoniously dumped onto the sidewalk--never expecting a small chunk of crack cocaine, wrapped in brown paper, to fall to the ground.

Danielle says the cops led her around the corner, where Mike "sat on the curb handcuffed. They told me he'd done this to about five other girls," which is why they believed her story of not knowing what she carried, and why she wound up getting charged with possession but not intent to distribute. Either way, Danielle had reached a milestone shared by most Baltimore women involved in street prostitution: She'd gained a criminal record, and was on her way to jail.

Intrigued by women like Danielle and concerned about their plight, last May Eden Savino published a 90-page thesis titled "Sex, Crime, and Social Control: Female Street Prostitution in Baltimore City." Savino was satisfying requirements to receive her master's degree in public policy from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. But with a background in journalism, Savino also wanted to investigate why, as she puts it, in some Baltimore neighborhoods "prostitution . . . is a bigger issue than drugs--and Baltimore's got a ton of drugs."

Savino's thesis puts a small dent in what's otherwise a virtual absence of comprehensive data on prostitution in the city--something that frustrates both communities and public officials. "There are no numbers on prostitutes," city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson says. Violence against prostitutes is "extremely underreported for obvious reasons," he says. Outreach campaigns distributing condoms to prostitutes are having an effect on the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases--formerly ranked highest in the country for syphilis infections (it is now fifth), Baltimore has experienced an 80 percent drop in cases since 1998, down to about 130 per year--but no tracking mechanism exists to tie disease transmission to prostitution-related sexual encounters.

In an attempt to present a broader framework for the issue, Savino interviewed not only health-care professionals, but also people in the criminal justice system, community activists, and people most directly affected by the issue--prostitutes. What she learned was that while no ostensible tracking takes place, prostitutes almost always land inside the criminal justice system, where they get caught up in a cycle of sanctions-treatment-relapse. And her research led her to the same conclusion that most people familiar with the city's prostitution problem would offer: Legal sanctions don't work because they don't address underlying causes that lead to tricking--as in Danielle's case, drug addiction. In fact, Savino says she met women who'd been "incarcerated over 20 times. But without [extended] drug treatment, housing, and all the other services, incarceration would not deter them from prostituting."

Fortunately, alternatives to criminalization are being discussed in the city--mostly among members of the Baltimore Prostitution Task Force, a year-old volunteer group of activists, health and law-enforcement officials, social workers, and people formerly in the life. The group also includes criminal justice personnel, like city District Court Judge Charlotte Cooksey, who just started her third 10-year term on the bench. Cooksey is among a group of local judges who've developed a proposal being shopped around to develop a rehabilitation facility designed for women who've been incarcerated and are substance abusers, with specialized drug treatment for those who've encountered things like child sexual abuse or generational prostitution (where children are turned out by parents in the life), as well as job and life-skills training, mental health services, and housing and family reunification assistance.

"We'd like to see a gender-responsive strategy so people can try and break the cycle," Cooksey says.

Beilenson supports the proposal and says talks are underway to open a new 30-bed facility in the area to offer "the most holistic approach to this issue." Such a venture would come with a price tag, of course--about $500,000 to $1 million, Beilenson estimates, pointing up the need for what would likely be private or government funding to seed the project.

Incarcerating prostitutes doesn't seem to stop them from going back to the streets, but some cities have had success focusing on the demand side of the equation--the johns. There are even "john schools," like the one in Norfolk, Va., where (mostly) men who are arrested and convicted of soliciting sex must do community service and attend workshops on prostitution's damaging effects on women. Such schools--plans for which have been discussed in Baltimore in past but, without a funding source, never got off the ground--remind society that, legally, johns are just as culpable as prostitutes.

"It's true that johns could be picked up [by cops] just as easily as women," Cooksey says. "It's a very visible thing--in fact, years ago, half the [court] docket could be men."

But that was back when the city had more resources dedicated to stopping prostitution-related vice, says Detective Will Narango, a 24-year Baltimore Police veteran who used to work in vice and is currently in administration. With drug trafficking and other public safety issues changing "enforcement priorities" in recent years, Narango says the pursuit of johns has slackened. He believes arresting more johns wouldn't be an effective solution.

"We spend too much time focusing on enforcement and don't put enough money into long-term care. These girls and guys are on drugs--so the situation is really long-term," Narango says. "Ninety-nine percent of [prostitutes] don't want to be where they're at. Many of them are hurt little girls."

At 28, Danielle wasn't a little girl anymore when she landed in jail the first time. But, body curled into a ball, she sure was hurting.

Inside a cell at the Baltimore City Detention Center in the spring of 2000, booked and awaiting trial for drug possession, Danielle went into cold-turkey withdrawal. Symptoms the first day included "hot sweats, cold sweats, and throwing up until all that came out was green liquid," she recalls. She describes involuntarily defecating on herself for the next two days because she couldn't control her bowels and was too weak to rise from her filthy cot. Danielle says that other cellmates, many of whom knew the drill, helped clean her up, until four or five days had passed and she was "finally able to clean my own ass."

Long after her withdrawal symptoms eased, Danielle knew she'd never forget what felt like "a machete stabbing you in the back," she says. "You know when they say [a drug addiction] is like having a monkey on your back? Well, mine was a 1,000-pound gorilla."

Danielle spent six months in the detention center, making 95 cents a day working in the sanitation department, reading books, and feeling a "fog lifting" in her detoxified brain and body. "My skin glowed. I was taking showers again, and eating," she says, ticking off signs that her life, even while incarcerated, was somehow returning to normal.

After six months, having been sentenced to three years probation and mandatory local drug treatment, Danielle left the city jail to enroll at I Can't We Can, a highly regimented rehab program run by Israel Cason, a former heroin addict whose no-excuses counseling style has garnered both strong criticism and praise. Assigned to one of the program's houses, Danielle "felt like it was a jail that had a door you could open and close," she says. While the year-long program offered safe living arrangements and helped her stay clean, the "feet on the floor by 5:30 a.m. , breakfast at 7 a.m. , go to [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings " schedule made her feel like "I was still bitten," she says, using prison vernacular for being jailed.

Still, finishing the program was a great achievement that not only made Danielle proud, but her estranged family, too. "Everybody attended my graduation ceremony," she recalls, smiling at memories of her mom and dad (who'd gotten divorced in the 10 years since she'd left home), grandmother, and childhood friends all showing their support--and relief. "It was really a joyous thing."

But about five months after graduating, having recovered from her addiction but no longer attending NA meetings, Danielle's life started to unravel again. She'd done some things right--like securing a low-wage job at Owings Mills Town Center and finding a drug-free roommate to rent an apartment with near Pikesville. "I had $1,100 in the bank and a new Visa card," Danielle recalls, adding that while she was doing OK for herself, she wasn't feeling OK with herself.

"You bathe and bathe and scrub yourself constantly," Danielle says, describing the odor of drugs that once seeped from her "armpits, vagina, everywhere." But long after that odor ceased, there lingered mental images of sex that couldn't be washed away. "One day I was just like, 'I'm gonna get me a bag of dope," she says. "Even though I knew the saying that one is never enough, and a thousand too many."

Danielle soon lost her job, her apartment, her renewed relationships with family, and any new hopes and visions she had for herself. Worse, she lost track of days, and didn't keep appointments with her probation officer, which meant a warrant for her arrest was issued. And when she got busted for copping a dime bag of heroin in Park Heights, she had to go to prison.

Danielle was sentenced to nine years at "Grandma's House," the state prison for women in Jessup. It was late 2001, just months after she had started what she thought was a clean slate--and just weeks before she discovered, once inside prison, that she was pregnant.

"I just remember saying, 'Oh, my God,'" Danielle says, explaining the close relationship she'd developed with Bill (not his real name), a man she met in the drug rehab program. Bill didn't know she'd begun using again and he didn't know what else drugs made her do. Still, after discovering she was pregnant, Bill asked to marry her.

Danielle desperately wanted her sentence to be lightened. She decided to file a "motion for modification," which could--if a judge were so inclined, and based on a relatively light criminal record and a probation-related arrest--alter her sentence to time served and further mandated treatment. After a few nail-biting months, Danielle lucked out--which is not to say she got lucky. In fact, besides the baby's impending birth, other things happened to make her life more complicated, leading to another relapse.

"Seven times, sometimes over as long as 20 years," says You Are Never Alone executive director Sid Ford, referring to how long it takes some prostituted women to resist relapses and straighten out their lives. Since the West Baltimore nonprofit organization opened its doors seven years ago, Ford says she's seen literally thousands of women caught in the cycle of using-tricking-jail-treatment-relapse, and says she believes that the layers of physical and psychological abuse heaped on prostitutes makes long-term, diversified treatment an absolute necessity.

"People have to be nurtured somehow," Ford says. And just as legal sanctions don't solve the problem of prostitution in the long run, Ford says that traditional 28-day detox programs or other just-say-no style programs, while helpful, don't give prostituted women the opportunity to address a deeply ingrained guilt and powerlessness. "You can't expect people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps when they don't have boots and barely have feet," she says.

You Are Never Alone's 10-person staff serves about 2,200 women a year who need everything from basics like toiletries and clothes, to intensive mental-health counseling or group talk therapy. In addition, You Are Never Alone received special funding in April 2003 to launch a new criminal justice diversion program called YANA HOPE (Helping Oppressed People Engage), wherein the nonprofit is linked with criminal justice agencies and other city personnel to provide services to prostituted women who face incarceration but have not been previously convicted of a violent crime, like arson or robbery.

Drugs may drive street prostitution, Ford and other social workers note, but its unique and often sordid circumstances require more specialized interventions and treatments. "I've talked to people who were sold as toddlers into prostitution--where a parent sells a child to get money for their drug habit," Ford says. You Are Never Alone mental health counselor Tracy Hood tells of clients shot up with heroin as teenagers by drug-addicted mothers who turned them out on the street to get extra cash. Then, Ford says, there are cases of incest and domestic violence and other abuses that contribute to the average age that girls start to prostitute themselves in Baltimore City: 13 years old.

"It's a whole system of dysfunction, a special kind of domestic terrorism if you want to call it that," Ford says. "But the public should understand that [prostitutes] are human beings--just like anyone in their families."

Treating prostitutes like people is the key to their recovery, says Jacqueline Robarge, founder of Power Inside, a local nonprofit support group for currently or formerly incarcerated women formed last year. According to Robarge, the struggle among such women to get well and feel whole is compounded by "messages in their heads that they're sinners, or hos, or just not a good person." Such feelings can lead to relapses or a reluctance to seek treatment at all.

Robarge hopes to steer clients away from the streets and toward healthy lives, advocating for things like the expungement of criminal records, "so people trying to find jobs don't have a criminal record following them for the rest of their lives," she says. But she stresses that it's also important to focus on making clients' lives better right now, where they are.

"Instead of a program saying, 'I can't work with you until you get out of prostitution,' [social workers] can offer needle exchange and work to keep women from becoming HIV-positive," Robarge says. "Maybe you set incremental goals, like where a woman says, 'I'm not going to get inside a van today because it's too dangerous'--and know that that's a lot."

All of the above would be easier to accomplish, Robarge says, if prostitution were an issue that more of the public viewed as preventable tragedy rather than an unsavory nuisance. "We know there are a lot of people out here using and tricking," she says. "But the question is, where's our compassion for them?"

A few weeks ago, Danielle walked around a photography exhibit at Goucher College in Towson studying matted and framed images, artist brochures in hand. A dozen years have passed since she's done anything like this, she says, shaking her head at enlarged photos depicting harsh urban life in places like Brooklyn, N.Y., and San Francisco's Tenderloin district. Captions reveal that certain subjects were later murdered, and how others fought losing battles with drug addiction and lived in squalor. One image of a mother holding an infant in a motel room filled with trash stops Danielle in her tracks. "Wow, that could have been me and Stacy," she whispers, referring to her toddler daughter. ("Stacy" is a pseudonym.)

It was a close call, as Danielle tells it. Six months pregnant when she was released from prison in the spring of 2002, she again enrolled in a court-mandated drug treatment program and attended group meetings faithfully. She and her fiancé, Bill, were living together, and for a few months life was good and stable. Then, she stays, "some stuff happened." Her grandmother, the one who'd taken her in after she broke up with her longtime boyfriend Troy, died two weeks before she had Stacy. On the heels of that, "my mom called and told me she had cancer--and it didn't look good," Danielle says. "Suddenly, all I could think about was death--even me dying."

Danielle also kept thinking that Bill was a good father, a man who'd handle the job of raising their child if she couldn't. She went and copped drugs again, then used, then skipped treatment and probation meetings. By February 2003, Danielle was back in prison, "sewing hems on American flags and not even recognizing myself when I looked in the mirror," she says.

Unlike many of the children of female prostitutes and addicts, Danielle's daughter didn't wind up in foster care, as Bill did step up to bat. But knowing Stacy was being cared for didn't stop the guilt Danielle felt at "not being the kind of mother my mother was to me," she says.

While she hoped there'd still be time to fix things with Stacy, time had run out with Danielle's mother. "When Bill called to tell me, I fell to the floor and didn't pick up the phone for 10 minutes. I couldn't talk. I mean, knowing that I couldn't even go to her funeral," she says, eyes overflowing with tears again.

Unable to rectify the past with her mother, Danielle wallowed in the loss, losing sleep and worrying that she'd lose her own child. Mentally, she ticked off other losses--Troy, her father (who'd practically washed his hands of her), her grandmother, and other relatives tired of being letdown. Finally, Danielle had a "straw that broke the camel's back" moment: "I realized here I was at Grandma's House again, in a building with people who were there for life--25 and 30 years for killing somebody. I didn't judge them because they helped me understand they are people, too. But, drug addiction isn't a crime, it's a disease--and you can't just lock people up and throw away the key.

"I just remember surrendering to God, not just with my mind but with my mouth," she says. "I called Him and said, 'I want to live. I love myself.'" It became a mantra Danielle uttered while she wrote yet another motion to modify her sentence and prayed for a miracle. "People kept telling me that getting two motions like that approved was unheard of," she says.

Luck was again apparently on Danielle's side. She was released from prison last September--determined, she says, never to go back. "I missed almost nine months of my daughter's life, and what used to be a desire for drugs is now a desire for me to love me," she says. Bill was waiting when she got out; they are now engaged.

For now, Danielle fanatically attends group support meetings at least five times a week, and stretches the $376 a month she receives from Social Services while she looks for a job that'll look past her record. In exchange for her good fortune, Danielle says she also promised God to do something positive with her life after realizing firsthand how difficult it is to recover from long-term drug use and prostitution. She says she'll do outreach to other prostituted and incarcerated women, and maybe even run a recovery house herself one day.

"Every day my internal dialogue is that I can't beat myself up about the past because God spared me to be who I am today," she says. "I have to look at it like that--how else can you explain it?"

Danielle may have rounded a bend, but, as history has shown, she's got her work cut out for her. If she pulls through and follows through on plans to help other women, she won't lack for clients who need what she can uniquely offer.

In the weeks after meeting Danielle, the reporter who approached her with a head full of questions decides to head back out to the street. Another acquaintance knows of a spot near East Baltimore and North Conkling streets in Southeast Baltimore where prostitutes are known to "prance," especially after dusk falls. Sure enough, in the fading light the acquaintance spots "Dotty" leaning against an iron railing outside a cemetery.

A petite, elfin-looking woman with darting gray eyes and flaming red hair, Dotty could double for the character Pippy Longstocking. She agrees to talk, provided there are no pictures and her real name isn't used. "I'm not working anymore 'cause I just got out of treatment," she says. But yellow teeth (a trademark of heroin use) and a tendency to dart nervous looks into passing cars makes you wonder.

Whatever she's out doing this evening, Dotty, who says she's 31, admits she's been tricking the past seven months "because of the drugs." But she's trying to clean up her act because of "a wake-up call I got recently."

"I went with this guy who took me to his house after we stopped to get some beers," Dotty explains. "When we get there, he says we're going in the basement--me first. But something didn't feel right." Having descended a few steps, Dotty says she turned around and managed to throw her weight against the door just as the man was pushing it closed--for what, she doesn't want to guess. "He was like, 'Aw, I wasn't going to hurt you'--but I ran outta there quick." Like many prostitutes, Dotty says she didn't report the incident to police because "they'd be like, 'You're out there prostituting, so you deserved it.'"

Dotty says she's been "locked up" four times since 1997, always on drug or prostitution charges, or probation violations. She's worked as a stripper on the Block but, like Danielle, says she had a "normal childhood" growing up in East Baltimore, where her mother "cut up my food for me until I was 14." Still, Dotty says she developed an "addictive personality. I was a shopper [shoplifter], a nail-biter--always wanting to try new things."

But new things led to bad things, like weed, cocaine, and eventually heroin. After her mother died of a heart attack in 1998, Dotty says it was all downhill. "I couldn't deal with that, or with my father getting remarried," she says, or with the suicide of a brother who, she claims, shot himself with a deer rifle last Easter. "I just let everything [emotional] out on the drugs."

Traffic starts to pick up, and Dotty's attention wanes. She says she's gotta go, but she wants people to know that many women like her "do these things because you're just trying to make yourself numb--you don't want to see reality.

"Then, you see people who are just cold-hearted and turn their heads away from us. But sometimes, all we need is a heads-up. "

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