Ex-Prostitutes Who Proselytize

A former madam leads a crusade to rescue prostitutes from a dangerous, addictive lifestyle

Seventeen-year-old Jose from Culiacán, Mexico, sits handcuffed to a metal folding chair, looking as though he just dropped his ice cream cone in the dirt. He speaks no English and has only been in Phoenix for two months. Still, he knew Van Buren Street was the place to pick up a prostitute because, as he explains with a shy grin, "Todo el mundo sabe": The whole world knows.

But Jose didn't know about the Phoenix Police Department's vice night. After a four-hour sweep, Jose is one of eight males picked up for solicitation, and 11 females arrested for prostitution.He's being detained at the PPD's mobile community policing unit in the parking lot of St. Luke's Hospital at 1800 East Van Buren. There's a booking table set up to process both prostitutes and johns, who are then loaded into a paddywagon for a trip to jail.

Excuses fall on deaf ears as the suspects try to talk their way out of their predicament. An African man with a thick accent explains that there must be some mistake because this kind of behavior is against his religion. The man next to him protests that he has only $3.19 in his pocket, and even on Van Buren you "can't get no pussy for $3.19." A belligerent woman dressed in black with ripped panty hose removes her falsies, places them in a Ziploc bag and swears she's a CI -- a confidential informant for the police.

A woman arrested for prostitution awaits processing during a vice sweep.
A woman arrested for prostitution awaits processing during a vice sweep.
Kathleen Mitchell talks to Nicole, a 19-year-old prostitute, about the DIGNITY program.
Paolo Vescia
Kathleen Mitchell talks to Nicole, a 19-year-old prostitute, about the DIGNITY program.

A young woman named Nicole makes no protest. The man sitting next to her with a beer belly and scruffy beard checks her out as she politely answers an officer's questions, laughing and joking all the while. She is a "circuit girl" who turns tricks in Miami, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. You can spot circuit girls because they tend to be clean. They have pimps who take care of them. Nicole, who has long, red fingernails and bleached-blond hair, is wearing a spandex baby-blue shirt, cut-off jean shorts and tennis shoes. She crosses and uncrosses her legs, revealing a Winnie-the-Pooh tattoo on her ankle. She is 19.

Once Nicole has been booked, a matronly looking woman named Kathleen Mitchell escorts her to a table separate from the police assembly line.

"I know you," Mitchell tells Nicole.

She says this to all the girls.

Mitchell knows girls like Nicole because she once was one herself. Now, however, she runs DIGNITY House, a halfway house for prostitutes who want to leave that life behind.

Nicole denies knowing her, but listens to Mitchell's pitch as she wipes off the fingerprint ink.

"We're not here to judge you, we're not cops," Mitchell says. "We just want to let you know there are other options. Eventually you will have to stop."

She gives Nicole a card, says to call if she needs anything. The police load Nicole into the paddywagon. Mitchell has simply planted a seed. Nicole is not yet miserable enough to ask for help; she has a pimp who will bail her out tonight. She's young, and the streets have yet to take their toll.


It isn't hard to get into the sex industry. The hard part is getting out.

In Pretty Woman, Richard Gere reclaimed Julia Roberts from the ranks of hookers by putting her in a red dress and getting her to stop fidgeting.

But when the subject is a 10-year crackhead, it takes more than Hollywood to get her ready for the opera. It takes a saint. Or a miracle.

Prostitutes and police alike use these words to describe Kathleen Mitchell, founder and coordinator of the DIGNITY program. This 56-year-old grandmother has dedicated her life to helping women escape the sex industry. She teaches classes to prostitutes in jail and runs DIGNITY House, helping prostitutes who want a new, saner vocation.

With her white hair and gentle, soft-spoken demeanor, it is easy to imagine Mitchell in this role of caregiver, mother and savior.

She's also a former madam. In 1989, Mitchell was indicted on 14 counts of receiving earnings of a prostitute, and also on charges of leading an organized-crime syndicate and conducting an illegal enterprise. She pleaded guilty to the felony charge of operating a prostitution enterprise. Her criminal record consists of prostitution charges dating back to 1968.

"I was involved in that life of prostitution for 21 years. It's one of the hardest things in the world for a woman to live down," says Mitchell, adding that society is "willing to forgive drug dealers, perverts -- but women who prostituted and child molesters are unforgivable."

Mitchell now plays a different role in the lives of prostitutes. A year spent behind bars offered respite from her pimp and helped her see the reality of prostitution.

"I sat in jail and watched women come in and out. Circling. The revolving door. A full year of watching women come in three and four times. I thought, 'I need to do something for me, because I don't have the addiction for drugs, I don't have the addiction for alcohol. I have an addiction for a man.'"

". . . It's relationships that push us into this, keep us in it and push us further."

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