Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

How decriminalizing sex work became a campaign issue in 2018

State Senate candidate Julia Salazar explains how sex workers’ rights is a key part of reforming criminal justice in New York.

Julia Salazar speaks to canvassers in August.
Melissa Gira Grant/Anagraph

How decriminalizing sex work became a campaign issue in 2018

State Senate candidate Julia Salazar explains how sex workers’ rights is a key part of reforming criminal justice in New York.

“What is sex work?”

That was the question sex worker rights activists were expecting to hear often as they canvassed Brooklyn voters one drizzly August Sunday. At a gathering of about two dozen canvassers in a Williamsburg park, after the pizza and before knocking on doors, the activists circled under some trees to talk through how to answer that question. It was the first time this group had canvassed voters on sex workers’ rights, to talk with voters about the enforcement of prostitution laws, like anti-loitering policing that targets women of color and raids on massage businesses predominantly staffed by immigrants. It was the first time these activists had a candidate they could canvass on these issues for.

Julia Salazar, who is running for a New York state Senate seat representing north Brooklyn, arrived a few minutes later to send them off. She said sex workers—“my constituents”—are disproportionately criminalized in her district. Bushwick, for example, was among the top five New York City neighborhoods where police made “loitering for prostitution” arrests as of 2015. She referenced the Brooklyn courts, where 94 percent of those facing loitering for prostitution charges were Black. “That should disturb all of us,” she said.

Salazar argued that sex work policing was a central part of a bigger problem with Brooklyn’s approach to criminal justice. “Criminalizing sex work is a form of broken windows policing,” she said. “We shouldn’t tolerate it when it is used against sex workers.” If police gave out tickets for prostitution-related offenses instead of arresting people, she said, “this would actually go a long way in New York state toward decriminalization—toward full decriminalization.”

But how would she turn campaign promises into actual decriminalization? As Salazar explained in an interview with The Appeal, it will require identifying the issues where there’s a clear legislative path. She also plans to use her role and relationship to the movement to do “comprehensive political education” on sex work—like through Sunday’s canvass. Speaking “boldly and unapologetically” about sex workers’ rights helps destigmatize the issue, Salazar told The Appeal. “I think that is the most powerful work, and also it is the only way that ultimately we achieve legislative solutions as well.” Her campaign has provided a platform for sex workers to do some of that educational work, while offering a template for how the decriminalization fight could play out in other cities and states.

Salazar’s candidacy has been billed as part of a wave of young candidates on the left, many who have unseated veteran incumbent Democrats in their primaries. Her campaign has also generated intense scrutiny, with multiple news articles on her personal religious background, her political evolution, and most recently, allegations that in 2010 she stole from Mets player Keith Hernandez’s wife at the time. Police did not move forward with those charges, and Salazar received a settlement in a defamation lawsuit.

In its story on the allegations, the Daily Mail called Salazar a “socialist pin-up”. Salazar told The Appeal, “It’s sexist and repulsive for any reporter to call a woman running for office a ‘pin-up.’ They should also be ashamed for seeking to smear me when they can see that I was clearly viciously targeted by someone—and that I was given a settlement to resolve it.”

Salazar canvassing materials
Melissa Gira Grant

Her support for sex workers’ rights is unusual for a person running for office, though if 2018’s elections are any indication, that is starting to change rapidly. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated longtime incumbent Representative Joseph Crowley of New York in her primary fight and is expected to head to Washington in January, says she opposes SESTA/FOSTA, new federal legislation that has pushed sex workers offline and made sex work more dangerous. When Suraj Patel was running for Congress against New York Representative Carolyn Maloney, a SESTA/FOSTA co-sponsor, he held a town hall meeting on sex work run by sex worker rights activists. Patel, who lost the primary, stopped short of supporting the full decriminalization of sex work. Still, the critical races to watch—when it comes to removing anti-prostitution laws from the books—will be state and local level races like Salazar’s.

Federal legislation like SESTA/FOSTA is harmful, but state and municipal laws against prostitution have threatened sex workers for far longer. These are the laws Salazar focuses on in her platform, and if elected, these are laws she could help change. A bill to repeal New York’s “loitering for prostitution” law has already been introduced. Likewise, lawmakers in Albany could repeal the prostitution exemption in the state’s rape shield law, another Salazar priority; this would bar sex workers’ past charges and convictions from being considered evidence in a rape case. The state could also prohibit allowing the possession of condoms as evidence in prostitution cases through another bill that has already been introduced (though in the past, the NYPD has opposed it). Some of the changes Salazar and sex workers seek, though, don’t require action in Albany. Prosecutors could simply opt not to pursue prostitution-related charges. Police could be instructed to stop making such arrests.

Sex workers have already been pushing these changes in New York, challenging the loitering law and fighting to end condoms-as-evidence, and Salazar is quick to underscore that in taking up these issues, she is following people who have been “fighting for a long time.” The current wave of criminal justice reform around sex work grew from a nationwide movement of sex worker rights activists older than most of the activists on the Salazar canvass. One of those early activists, Margo St. James, emerged as a pro-decriminalization force in the 1970s. After a prostitution arrest, she went to law school and appealed her conviction. St. James later ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1996. The city’s district attorney endorsed her, though she lost.

What differentiates this moment from earlier waves of sex worker rights organizing is that it’s finding support from multiple candidates in simultaneous races before they make it into office. Salazar told The Appeal that she was approached by sex worker rights activists like Lola Balcon, an organizer who helped lead Survivors Against SESTA, and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who Salazar knew from DSA’s Socialist Feminist Working Group. “I would say it didn’t require a lot of consideration,” she said, when it came to backing sex workers’ rights.

Salazar said her policy positions also draw from her four years as a domestic worker, caring for two kids on the Upper West Side and cleaning apartments to supplement that income, and as an activist on a campaign to pass a New York state Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. “Getting involved with the Caring Majority campaign, it became apparent to me that domestic workers really are uniquely mistreated. They are excluded from collective bargaining rights—at least as an industry—are excluded from the conversation most of the time about labor rights and about workers’ rights, and that exclusion is really rooted in both misogyny and a history of slavery,” she told The Appeal. Sex workers, she said, “face similar challenges, of being not, still, conventionally thought of as workers, and having their labor deeply undervalued, and even scorned.” Sex workers, like domestic workers, she said, need to be recognized by and protected under the law.

Eve, an escort and member of the DSA, canvassing for Salazar.
Melissa Gira Grant

Sex workers’ key difference from domestic workers, however, is that so many sex workers are criminalized. Sex workers’ labor rights issues are also criminal justice issues.

Salazar believes that the way forward is to tackle both kinds of issues together, and to do so, that will require getting the labor movement to see that criminal justice reform is “directly related to the mission of the labor movement as a whole and of labor unions.” Organized workers, community leaders, and elected officials, she said, “have a responsibility to demand that our labor movement institutions are focusing more on criminal system justice and reform as a whole and making the connection to workers rights.”

Sex workers are already working on making these connections, including while on the doorsteps of strangers. Eve, an escort and member of the DSA, told The Appeal that she had also knocked on doors for Ocasio-Cortez. If sex workers’ rights are having a coming-out moment in electoral politics, Salazar said that’s due to these workers and their organizing. This moment, she said, “it really is the result of long suffering relentless determination and building this movement. It’s really cool to finally see the fruits of that.”

And New York voters may finally be ready to listen. That Sunday with Salazar’s sex worker rights supporters, Eve bounded up six and seven flights of stairs with ease, in tenement walk-ups and doorman buildings. Her pitch was consistent, running quickly through Salazar’s support for affordable housing, abolishing ICE, and decriminalizing sex work. One voter, in a new building where few answered Eve’s knocks, did have some questions about what it would mean to abolish ICE. Another asked if she was his Uber driver. But none of the voters on the other side of those doors turned Eve away or even questioned her when she said she was a sex worker and that’s why she supported Salazar.

Louisiana Attorney General May Run For Governor By Fearmongering Over Criminal Justice

Attorney General Jeff Landry has taken a number of extreme positions on policing and sentencing in response to reform.

Attorney General Jeff Landry
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Louisiana Attorney General May Run For Governor By Fearmongering Over Criminal Justice

Attorney General Jeff Landry has taken a number of extreme positions on policing and sentencing in response to reform.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said recently that he will most likely run for governor next year, mounting a challenge to Democrat incumbent John Bel Edwards, who has brought sweeping criminal justice reforms to the state and significantly reduced the prison population during his first term as governor.

“There’s no doubt if I run I will beat John Bel Edwards, and you can tell him I said that,” Landry told a reporter last month.

Edwards’s efforts to reform Louisiana’s notorious criminal justice system will most likely be a major flashpoint of the gubernatorial campaign. Though the two were elected to the same executive branch in 2015, Landry—a former sheriff’s deputy and police officer—has fought the governor’s policy agenda constantly, particularly over criminal justice issues.

During his nearly three years in office, Edwards has overhauled the state’s criminal justice system, to the point where Louisiana no longer holds the title of most incarcerated state in the nation. In 2017, he signed the most comprehensive criminal justice reform bill in the state’s history, reducing sentences for nonviolent offenses while encouraging the use of alternatives to prison. As of this year, the state’s prison population has dropped by over 7 percent. The effort has widespread bipartisan support from law enforcement, community organizations, and other advocates.

But Landry has stoked fears that reform is unleashing dangerous criminals on the streets. In a column in The Advocate in March, Landry and Senator John Kennedy called Edwards’s legislation a “disaster.” The two Republicans cited an example of a man convicted of burglary who then robbed several businesses after he was released through the new sentencing laws. He “was able to commit his latest string of crimes because Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act freed him early from prison,” they wrote.

The man was, in fact, released just two months earlier than his original sentence called for, according to Ken Pastorick at the Department of Correction. Nevertheless, they wrote, the Louisiana Justice Reinforcement Act “should be called the Louisiana Prisoner Release and Public Safety Be Damned Act.”

Through this lens, Louisiana’s criminal justice reform could face a grim future under a Landry administration. He would most likely strengthen efforts by other Republicans to roll back or repeal the reform.

In an extreme move that breaks with his own party, the attorney general has also recently come out against a November ballot initiative that would require juries in the state to reach unanimous verdicts to convict in felony cases. Louisiana is just one of two states that allow split-jury verdicts thanks to a Reconstruction-era rule explicitly intended to disempower Black jurors. (Oregon, which joined later, is the other state.) The state Republican Party and powerful conservative groups including the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity are all supporting the initiative to make jury verdicts unanimous.

Landry did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal and declined an interview with local press. But when asked about his position on split juries, his chief deputy said Landry believes “the non-unanimous jury law has a positive effect on the criminal justice system in Louisiana. We believe it makes for quicker and easier administration of the system.”

Governor John Bel Edwards
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Landry took it upon himself to create a task force of state agents in New Orleans to tackle the rising rate of violent crime without coordinating with city officials. In a little under a year, the task force made at least 16 arrests, mostly for drug offenses, with significant controversy over its legal right to patrol the city. The chief of police told Landry that the attorney general actually has no jurisdiction to make arrests within a municipality, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu claimed that by not coordinating with the city police, Landry was endangering officers. The task force was disbanded roughly 11 months after its creation.

Landry has also been Louisiana’s most vocal critic of sanctuary cities and has targeted New Orleans, despite the mayor’s insistence that the city is fully compliant with federal immigration law.

Jim Craig, director of the New Orleans office of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, said Landry’s convictions about Edwards’s criminal justice reform package and his efforts in New Orleans point toward his end goal of higher office.

“It’s pretty clear that almost all of his criminal justice positions are posturing to secure the Republican nomination for governor next year,” Craig said. “He’s not trying to get votes from people in New Orleans. He’s trying to play off against New Orleans, which is a pretty racially coded message on his part, so that people outside New Orleans in rural Louisiana will see him as standing up against a majority Black and Black-run city.”

Landry and Edwards have also publicly sparred about other criminal justice issues, including the future of capital punishment in Louisiana. Edwards has avoided sharing his personal view on the death penalty, saying his job is to carry out the law. But since he took office, he has put executions on hold, citing the unavailability of lethal injection drugs and laws preventing the state from using other methods of execution. Louisiana has 71 inmates on death row but has not carried out an execution since 2010.

Landry, a capital punishment supporter, has said if that’s the case, the state should change the law. In mid-July, Landry wrote a letter claiming Edwards has not been aggressive enough on enforcing the death penalty. He claimed that because of Edwards’s inaction, “a large and growing number of victims’ families suffer in legal limbo waiting for justice to be carried out.”

The attorney general suggested legislation that would allow the Department of Corrections to choose other methods of capital punishment when drugs are unavailable, including hanging, firing squads, and electrocution. But during the legislative session, Landry didn’t take any action to move forward with those alternatives.

He also threatened that he will stop defending the state in litigation over its lethal injection protocol because he claims Edwards isn’t trying hard enough to acquire the necessary drugs. After a request by state officials working for Edwards, a judge recently extended an order blocking all executions in the state for 12 more months.

Landry has also earned enemies for his position on a state law banning strippers under the age of 21. He has argued that young dancers are prone to “secondary effects” of working at strip clubs, but in a federal lawsuit challenging the law, dancers have claimed that the law is overly vague, broad, and discriminatory. A federal judge sided with the dancers in 2016, but Landry appealed the ruling to the Fifth Circuit.

But Craig insists that Landry’s statements on criminal justice issues are largely aimed at a potential campaign for higher office, as he has done little to follow through with many of his threats and it’s unclear whether he would take action on justice issues if he were elected governor.

“Clearly he wants to distinguish himself from the Republican field,” he said. “As they say some places, he’s all hat and no cattle.”

More in Explainers

‘Just Let Him Kick’

Lawsuits allege that a private Tennessee prison neglected diabetic prisoners, contributing to at least one death.

Illustration by Michelle Mildenberg

‘Just Let Him Kick’

Lawsuits allege that a private Tennessee prison neglected diabetic prisoners, contributing to at least one death.

Ashley Dixon first met Jonathan Salada when he was kicking his cell door.

It was spring of 2017 and Dixon had just started working as a correctional officer at CoreCivic’s Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Tennessee. It was her first, and would be her last, job in corrections.

“What’s wrong with him?” Dixon asked the officer who was training her.

The officer told her “he wanted his insulin but they haven’t called for insulin yet,” Dixon recalled in a recent interview with The Appeal. The officer’s response? “Just let him kick.”

He continued kicking for two more hours. Dixon kept asking the officer what they could do. Finally, she told Dixon to call the infirmary if she wanted to. Dixon did and learned that people with insulin-dependent diabetes had already been called out of their cells to receive insulin injections hours earlier. They let Salada out to receive his shot.

From then on, Dixon said, she tried to make sure Salada received his insulin when she was working.

About a month later, on May 24, 2017, she heard an emergency medical call for Salada over the prison radio.   

According to an incident report Dixon later submitted to a captain at the prison, Salada “was in extreme pain and screaming for help.” The nurses initially refused to enter his cell; when they finally did, they checked his vitals and left. “I just can’t figure out what his game is,” one of the nurses said to a lieutenant, according to Dixon’s incident report.

Three days later, Salada would be pronounced dead.  

The Appeal requested but has not yet received his autopsy report. His official cause of death, according to a local media report, was an overdose of buprenorphine, a prescription opioid painkiller, with diabetes listed as a contributing factor.

Spotty, erratic, and dangerous

We all need insulin to survive, and most people produce it regularly on their own. But in Type 1 diabetics like Salada, the body doesn’t produce insulin. To stay healthy, Type 1 diabetics and some Type 2 diabetics must check their blood sugar with a finger prick and receive insulin via injection or an insulin pump multiple times a day, carefully timed with the consumption of carbohydrates.

Missing even a single dose of insulin can be harmful, explained Sarah Fech-Baughman, director of litigation for government affairs and advocacy at the American Diabetes Association (ADA). “If a patient goes without insulin for hours to days, he or she could develop a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis—which is life-threatening.” If a patient receives inadequate insulin and has chronically high blood glucose for a sustained period of time, she added, it can also cause serious complications like blindness and cardiovascular disease.

The legal advocacy program at the ADA receives roughly 200 requests per year from incarcerated people who are receiving inadequate medical care, according to Fech-Baughman. The care of people with diabetes held in Trousdale is the subject of a class-action lawsuit by the ADA against CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and the Tennessee Department of Correction. There are at least 60 Type 1 diabetics or Type 2 diabetics incarcerated at Trousdale who require insulin injections, according to the ADA’s complaint.

[T]hey did not bring me any insulin for two days and I got really sick. ... I could not stop throwing up. Douglas Dodson, plaintiff in ADA suit

According to the lawsuit, blood sugar checks and the delivery of insulin—both of which should be coordinated with meals—are sporadic, erratic, and at times nonexistent.  Meals, blood sugar checks, and insulin injections are given at irregular times during the prison’s frequent lockdowns, the suit explains, forcing diabetic prisoners to choose between their health and their hunger. “Such unconscionable delay in receiving basic diabetes care is the functional equivalent of receiving no care at all,” the lawsuit alleges.

Firsthand accounts from prisoners with diabetes inside Trousdale detail their own metaphorical kicks at the door for insulin:

“[T]hey did not bring me any insulin for two days and I got really sick,” Douglas Dodson wrote in a handwritten note submitted as an exhibit in the ADA suit. “I could not stop throwing up.”

Another note from Dodson included with the ADA suit refers to a day he didn’t get any insulin until two hours after he had already eaten breakfast: “[M]y blood sugar was 476 at this time and we are still lock down.” (A normal blood sugar reading for an adult diabetic is between 80 and 130 before a meal, and less than 180 one to two hours after a meal begins.)

“I haven’t got any insulin at all today. It’s almost 1 pm,” Tazarius Leach writes in a grievance attached to his pro se complaint against the prison. “I’m not trying to cause a problem but its my health … I’m getting force to miss shots I have no control over.”

Central to the ADA’s lawsuit is the claim that CoreCivic prioritizes profits over care. This, ACLU of Tennessee executive director Hedy Weinberg explains, is precisely why the ACLU opposes prison privatization.

“Handing control over to private prison companies is clearly a recipe for abuse and neglect,” said Weinberg. “A private prison is most concerned about their stockholders.”

Both CoreCivic and Correct Care Solutions, LLC, which handles all medical care at Trousdale, deny all wrongdoing. In response to a request for an interview, Steven Owen, managing director of communications for CoreCivic wrote in an email, “While we can’t speak to the specifics of pending litigation beyond our court filings, CoreCivic is committed to providing high-quality healthcare to those entrusted to our care.” The Tennessee Department of Correction did not respond to a request for comment.

Beyond Trousdale

Negligent medical care isn’t confined to for-profit prisons, notes Gabriel Eber, senior staff counsel with the ACLU National Prison Project. “I’ve seen bad care in state-run prisons,” he said. “I’ve seen bad care in private prisons.”

People with diabetes suffer in local jails and immigration detention facilities too—reflecting a broader inhumanity that snakes through the U.S. prison system.

In 2013, Carlos Mercado died of diabetic ketoacidosis about 15 hours after being taken to Rikers Island in New York. While at the jail, he carried around a bag of his own vomit and requested his insulin, which had been confiscated. Guards reportedly thought he was “dope sick.”

Also, in 2013, in Oklahoma’s McClain County jail, Kory Dane Wilson was not given insulin for three days—reportedly despite pleas from family, friends, and cellmates—and died of diabetic ketoacidosis.

Prison is punishment. But the punishment is the taking away of the liberty. It's nothing more. It shouldn’t be a death sentence.Gabriel Eber, ACLU National Prison Project

In 2014, William Joel Dixon died after going without insulin for a week while in jail in George County, Mississippi. The day of his death, Dixon passed out in the shower. When a jailer asked the nurse to help him, she reportedly said she didn’t have time.  

“Prison is punishment,” said Eber. “But the punishment is the taking away of the liberty. It’s nothing more. It shouldn’t be a death sentence.”

Maintaining a healthy blood sugar is a daily challenge for people with diabetes even on the outside. In a prison healthcare system that may oversee thousands of patients, diabetics far too often fall through the cracks, said Eber.

At Trousdale, for instance, the medical staff consists of just four nurses and two nurse practitioners, according to a March 2018 filing in the ADA’s suit. As of July 5, 2017, 2,483 people were incarcerated at Trousdale.

“There is a sense of anger when I speak with insulin-dependent diabetics because they’re being wronged in a way that they know is going to affect their health,” Eber added. “And it’s not if or maybe. It’s certain.”

Type 1 diabetics are often well-versed in their own care—their lives depend on it, Eber explained. But their expertise, he said, can clash with the views of prison medical staff.

Brenda Menjivar Guardado, a 22-year-old Type 1 diabetic who had fallen into a diabetic coma at 13, knew to bring her insulin with her when she came to the United States seeking asylum from El Salvador. But when she was placed in ICE custody, her insulin was confiscated.

While Guardado was detained at CoreCivic’s T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas in 2017, she was provided with a different type of insulin than the one she had brought, causing her blood sugar to spike.

“They were giving Ms. Guardado what they were told was the best insulin treatment available, what most diabetic patients would want to receive,” said Robert Painter, director of pro bono programs and communications at American Gateways, which represented Guardado. “They were not hearing her when she was saying this type of insulin would not be effective for her.”

Eventually, Guardado was pushed into accepting the deportation, Painter told The Appeal. “Ultimately that was the only way she thought she could get the care she needed.”

ICE declined to address Guardado’s case specifically. In a statement to The Appeal, Nina Pruneda, a spokesperson for the agency said, “ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care.”

Salada’s final days

On the morning of May 25—two days before Jonathan Salada would be found unconscious in his cell—Dixon asked a nurse how Salada was doing; he had been admitted to the infirmary overnight. The nurse reported he was “sleeping like a baby” and that he was “likely doing this for attention,” Dixon wrote in her incident report. But a medical officer told Dixon that Salada had been “screaming in pain all night long.”

While it’s still unclear exactly what caused that pain, that morning a physician ordered Salada to be removed from the infirmary and returned to his cell, according to a lawsuit filed by Salada’s father. Salada’s father’s attorney stated via email that he prefers not to comment on active cases.

“[H]e continued to complain of pain and suffering and continued to request medical care but said requests were ignored and no further medical care or treatment was provided,” reads the complaint.

After his death, I was really haunted that my relationship had just been that of a guard and a prisoner, that I didn't get to know him.Ashley Dixon, former correctional officer, Trousdale Turner Correctional Center

On the night of May 26, Salada was “still in horrible pain,” Dixon wrote in her incident report. The following morning he was “shaking and moaning in pain.”

That morning, May 27, the nurse did not bring insulin for Salada, Dixon said, despite her pleas. At the end of her shift, at about 8 a.m., she went to the infirmary to report that Salada had still not received his insulin.

“Well, we will get to it when we get to it,” one of the nurses told her, according to Dixon’s incident report.

At about 8:40 a.m., Salada was found unconscious in his cell. His blood sugar was 587, more than three times what it should have been. He was pronounced dead at 9:34 a.m. at Trousdale County Medical Center. He was 25. He had been at Trousdale less than a year.

“After his death, I was really haunted that my relationship had just been that of a guard and a prisoner, that I didn’t get to know him,” said Dixon. “I went to his funeral and saw pictures of his childhood trips and saw him as a person, which is something we’re not able to do working in the prison.”

Dixon said regardless of what caused his death, his health was neglected. She wishes she could have done more for him. “I wish I could have held his hand or done something that was more comforting than being there,” she said, “being a witness to his suffering, not being able to do anything.”

If you or a loved one with Type 1 diabetes have experienced difficulties with care while incarcerated or if you have worked in a prison and witnessed such issues, please contact the author through Twitter at @elizabethweill.

More in Podcasts