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76% of all inmates end up back in jail within 5 years. Here’s how I broke the cycle.

I’m a former prostitute working to keep other victims out of jail.

The Santa Barbara County Detention and Correctional Facility in California.
David McNew/Getty Images

I spent my first night as an inmate at the Cook County Jail dreaming about the day I’d get out.

I had no idea that four years later, I’d return every day as a full-time employee of the very place that locked me up.

My story broadly follows a pattern that is common for victims of prostitution. Domestic violence led me to the streets, which led me to drugs, which led me to prostitution, which, thankfully, then led me to jail. I never expected that jail would be my saving grace. Now I hope to make it the same for more victims like me.

The type of treatment and care given to prostituted women and victims of sex trafficking at the Cook County Department of Corrections is different than at many other jails. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart focuses on rehabilitation services rather than punishment, providing women with the tools they need to get out and stay out of prison.

This is rare. American correctional facilities are known for high recidivism rates. Nationally, 76 percent of all inmates end up back in jail within five years. Other developed countries have much lower numbers — Nordic countries have recidivism rates between 20 and 30 percent.

But in the nation’s drug courts — criminal sentencing that typically includes mandatory addiction treatment — research shows that recidivism drops significantly. Among the nation’s 2,700 drug courts, Cook County is considered in the 10 model programs for prisoners. The jail has seen an 81 percent drop in felony convictions three years following prisoner release for those who have gone through their drug court program.

I believe this comes down to how we approach prison time for the incarcerated. We need to treat prisoners as individuals who need counseling, resources, and preparation for the outside world — not bad people who deserve punishment. If more jails and prisons ran like Cook County’s, especially for victims of prostitution, I believe we could bring these numbers down.

If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.

I went from six figures and a beautiful home to abandoned buildings and alleys

As a child, I was always expected to excel. I graduated from Loyola University in 1985 with a degree in finance and have always been an overachiever. I then worked for a large corporation, in charge of a staff of 25 people. It seemed like I had a very stable life.

However, like many victims of sexual exploitation, I had underlying mental health issues that I had never dealt with or spoken about. I was molested as a child, which caused me to have very low self-esteem. I felt like my brain had been wired wrong because of a perverted man who had sexualized my body at such a young age. Something always felt missing to me in a sense.

I had a “looking for love in all the wrong places” problem, and had a thing for the intelligent bad boy type. My husband at the time fit that bill perfectly. No matter how much I tried to maintain the corporate lifestyle, if someone in your life is involved in violence, it will affect you eventually too. He beat his first wife, and as much as I told myself, “Oh, he’ll never do that to me,” of course he eventually did.

So I ran. I ran from the domestic abuse. I ran from him and my five children. And then the cycle began — domestic abuse led me to drug use, which led me to prostitution to support my drug problem. Prostitution was a way for me to support my growing addiction to crack cocaine. Being trafficked was inevitable.

I went from a six-figure salary and a beautiful home with two cars in the driveway to living in abandoned buildings and alleys.

During the two years I was missing, I was raped, sodomized, beaten, and kidnapped. The abuse I suffered was horrific, and I felt my humanity drain away from me as buyers, known as “johns,” would just beat away at me for their own pleasure.

I continued my drug abuse to try to escape, and my pimp would give me more crack to make sure I wouldn’t return to my family. On Mother's Day as a gift he would give me extra crack because I would grieve so much for my children that I left.

I was lost. I was one of those people that you pass by every day and try not to notice. The lifestyle takes everything from you and completely transforms you into a different person.

During those two years I tried to smoke enough crack to bust my heart, but God did not let me die. He had another plan for me.

Jail saved my life, and once I got there I never left

My life was saved when angels in handcuffs came for me in 2004. When I was arrested, I thought I would be treated like a criminal. I was not expecting the love and compassion that I received inside the Cook County Jail.

I was arrested for violation of probation for my drug charge, and in lieu of three to seven years in prison, I was sentenced to 120 days in Women’s Justice Services (Jail-Based Treatment), which was the first of a total 18-month sentence through the Women’s Rehabilitative Alternative Probation (WRAP) Drug Court. This is a typical length of sentence given to women convicted of nonviolent drug-related crimes.

The Women’s Justice Program provided trauma-informed mental health treatment and substance abuse recovery. The types of services offered include individual and group therapy, crisis intervention and psychological assessment, medication referrals, anger management, literacy services, job training, and job placement, among others.

The program gave me coping skills to save me from myself and realize crucial aspects of my personality. Before coming into the program, I did not accept that I had a drug problem, and it taught me how to understand my addictive personality.

Those four months I spent in jail allowed me to be honest with myself and forgive myself first. I then forgave those who had harmed me and those that I had allowed to harm me.

It was also through this program that I met Lisa Cunningham.

Lisa, a peer coordinator employed by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, was a survivor of prostitution and a recovering addict, so she understood exactly what I was going through and I was able to fully put my trust in her.

Lisa loved me. She gave me flat irons for my hair when my hair was matted from living on the streets. She gave me lipstick when I hadn’t worn makeup in years. She gave me clothing even though I was so skinny from drug use that almost nothing would fit me. She helped me take those baby steps to recover from the trauma I had faced. Lisa was someone I could look up to in my recovery and know that it was possible to get through this journey.

Lisa wrote down her personal cellphone number for me, and she did not give that number out to anyone. I held on to that piece of paper like it was gold. I called her the night I finished the program at 11 o’clock, just needing to hear her voice, and she told me to show up on Monday to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. I spent the next six months on probation. In that time, I came to the jail every day and volunteered.

Since then, I’ve never left. I’ve worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 13 years. I started working as a mentor for new inmates just as Lisa did for me, and now I’m the senior project manager/human trafficking coordinator for the Cook County Sheriff's Office on Public Policy. My job handles more of the policy side, such as coordinating efforts to bring down pimps, traffickers, and johns.

The Sheriff’s Office gave me life, purpose, and a responsibility. I now have a responsibility to the victims of sex trafficking to pay it forward, to give them the love that I received. It’s painful to have to relive my experience every day, but I am responsible to help victims and try to save lives.

It’s nearly impossible to get a job with a felony on your record

There are still parts of the criminal justice system that need to be improved. I am lucky to work alongside the officers who put me in handcuffs, but most employers will not hire felons. I believe there needs to be some sort of statute of limitations on how long a person can have a felony on their record. Getting a job is an important way to reduce one’s chances of repeating the prison cycle.

I have lived the life that people make documentaries about (I am featured in Oprah’s documentary series Prostitution: Leaving the Life); I was given the 2016 Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award for Volunteer Service from President Barack Obama; I was part of Jimmy Carter’s 2015 summit to end human trafficking by 2025; I have spoken in front of the United Nations. But if you run my name through the system, it will still come up as felon.

It’s for this reason I have a petition before the governor of Illinois for executive clemency. My hope is that, if granted, it will pave the way for others like me.

I want my story to become a model for all prostituted women — that with the right treatment and more job opportunities, we can beat the cycle of recidivism.

Switching the focus of prisons

Recidivism rates would go down if people were given care in jail and the tools they need to get a job after. Instead, most US prisons only focus on punishment and do not have programs to help rehabilitate. Trends of overcrowding and increasing reports of physical and sexual abuse inside prisons may also leave inmates with worse mental health than they entered with.

The WRAP court program in Cook County has reduced recidivism rates, and 87 percent of graduates of the program will not have another felony drug charge in the three years after completion of the program. Their focus on mental health treatment, substance abuse recovery, jobs training, and so much else give prisoners the tools to survive outside the prison walls.

I love that every day, I get to tell the women prisoners I help that if I got through it, so can they. I believe that God saved me so that I would have the opportunity to save others. It is through the Cook County Sheriff’s Office that I have realized my responsibility to help other victims, and it is this type of help that will hopefully keep them from coming back.

If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.

—as told to Kelly Swanson

Marian Hatcher has been with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) for 13 years, where she is the senior project manager for the Office of Public Policy as well as the human trafficking coordinator. She coordinates several of CCSO’s anti-trafficking efforts such as the National Johns Suppression Initiative, a nationwide effort with 90 arresting agencies and more than 200 law enforcement partners targeting the buyers of sex as the driving force of sex trafficking and prostitution.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

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