Tough Row To Ho

Can the city's seediest street ever be cleaned up, much less gentrified?

When the cops aren't looking, the girls go silent as they try to sneak sodas from the nearby Coke machine. Word has long since reached the streets that this particular machine doesn't require money for a can of pop.

Some of the hookers have been here for hours, waiting for the police to finish the sweep and load them into a wagon that will take them to Madison Street Jail. For a majority, it's a familiar routine. Despite the fact that the ladies will all be spending the night behind bars, it's more like summer camp or a slumber party here. In some ways, they are relieved to have the night off.

They braid each other's hair, discuss crotch-shaving patterns, and boast about particularly odd requests from tricks. One woman with long gangly legs and an enormous mouth tells of the time a date paid her $1,000 to shove jelly up his ass.

Judging from the marks on their bodies, prostitutes often suffer beatings, but few call attention to themselves by alerting police.
Judging from the marks on their bodies, prostitutes often suffer beatings, but few call attention to themselves by alerting police.

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Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

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Everybody -- including the cops -- laughs.

But several of the women also complain to the officers about a particularly bad trick, a man who likes to slice girls' throats with a knife. The cops listen and take notes, concerned but not surprised by the meanness of the streets. It has been less than a year since six women were found dead in the Van Buren area, allegedly murdered by Cory Morris, a karaoke DJ who kept some of the rotting bodies in the trailer home where he lived.

Casillas says prostitutes are frequently the victims of crimes but rarely speak up. "If they are hurt or beaten, only a small percent will call police," he says. A lot of prostitutes are robbed, he says, "but feel that since they are out there committing a crime, we won't take them seriously."

Aside from the obvious, one of the crimes that hookers commit is "jacking" or "trick fucking," Casillas says. "[The prostitute] will be giving a blowjob and squeezing the trick's ass with one hand while removing the wallet with another. She'll have his money spent before he can get his pants on," Casillas explains, as he watches the girls demurely sipping pinched sodas.

As arrest forms are being filled out, Casillas thins a petite Hispanic girl from the herd, unlocks her cuffs and ushers her into a back room.

Her long, scraggly black hair falls in her face, and she leaves it there. It's draped over a huge knot on her forehead that she'd rather not explain.

Sitting defiantly on the floor, the woman, named Luisa, tells Casillas she prefers jacking wallets to sucking dick. One of the girls in the next room has tipped off police that Luisa is underage, not so much out of concern for her, but because she'd rather not have her on the track anymore. Luisa drinks, fights and steals, and that's bad for business.

In the tiny command post, even with the door closed, Casillas can hear the whores laughing in the next room while Luisa sulks and lies. He sits back against a desk and looks at the person on the floor carefully. Luisa is the type of girl he thinks of when people say prostitution is a victimless crime.

Tonight she's claimed to be 21, 19, 18, 16 and then 19 again. In reality she's not quite 14 years old. Casillas talks to her gently, questioning and teasing a little. Finally, a smile peaks out from underneath her mop of hair, and Luisa reluctantly gives him her mother's phone number.

Turns out Luisa is local, and her mother is called to come pick her up. Casillas says underage girls from out of state are sent back to their families on a Greyhound bus if they are forthcoming about their backgrounds with police. Whether such girls return to the game he can't say, but at least they're out of Phoenix for the time being.

With prostitution, it's not so much about eliminating the problem as it is shifting it somewhere else.


A subsequent sweep brings a particularly pathetic gaggle of hookers to Casillas' trailer. There's no laughter or jelly stories tonight. Instead, it's tears, whining and cries of "fuck you, you pigs!" As the officers take fingerprints and fill out forms, the rowdy bunch gets louder and meaner. For Casillas and his officers, the wagon to Madison can't come quickly enough.

Casillas looks tired, and holds his tongue. With bitches like these, sometimes it's hard to be cordial.

He surveys the women on the floor like a disappointed fisherman. Only six so far, which is either a sign that his officers are doing their jobs or a sign they're not. But Casillas chooses to be upbeat: He says the smaller catches are proof that the street is cleaner. That's what he has to believe to continue doing his job.

In the group this night, Casillas sees another familiar face. It is that of a girl nicknamed The Troll, who had just gotten out of jail the day before. This is the third time she's been arrested this week.

She groans a bit, squirming in her handcuffs as she tries to hollow out the most comfortable seat possible on the floor. It's obvious that her ass is killing her. The reason: Her pimp had flogged her backside with a shoe the night before, leaving her sore, stiff and unable to stand without assistance.

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