"It's Just a Revolving Door": An Interview with Beatrice Codianni, Founder and Executive Director of Sex Workers and Allies Network (SWAN), Inspiration for "Esposito" in "Orange is the New Black" — Part 2 of 4
**This interview has been edited for length and content.
Beatrice Codianni is the Executive Director and Founder of The Sex Workers and Allies Network (SWAN), a renowned harm reduction organization based New Haven, Connecticut. SWAN stands for decriminalization of sex work, abolition of the unjust criminal system, and dignity for all. Beatrice is a longtime community activist who was sentenced to 17 years in the Federal Correctional Institution, Danbury, serving time with Piper Kerman, author of the book, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” that inspired the popular Netflix series of the same name (Codianni’s character was referred to as “Esposito”). As a high ranking member of the Latin Kings, she used her community activism skills to fight for jobs, education and mental health and substance abuse treatment for disenfranchised youths. Beatrice is now the Managing Editor of Reentry Central, a nationally recognized website on reentry and criminal justice reform issues. She is also co-founder of the groups The Real Women of Orange is the New Black, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and the Women’s Resettlement Working Group. Additionally she was also a founding member of the Connecticut Bail Fund. Her full bio can be found here: https://jlusa.org/leader/beatrice-codianni/.
Ryan Sutherland (RS): I remember fondly working with you on the Community Leadership Team, having conversations with New Haven Police about New Haven’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) Program. What are your thoughts about the program both in New Haven and elsewhere. What makes a successful LEAD program and should this program be something that cities are looking to adopt?
Beatrice Codianni (BC): Well, it seems like a good idea because it’s a diversion program, when it’s done right. You tell somebody “these services are available, you’re not going to get arrested, here’s a number of a case worker, just call them.” And if you call them, then they don’t hassle you, in most cases. But people shouldn’t be forced to do this.
In New Haven it wasn’t like that at all though—it was law enforcement heavy from the top. It should be community-led: the community at the top and the police at the bottom. It just wasn’t like that. It was very unsuccessful because people just didn’t take to it. There only got a few people enrolled in the program and I think, the way it happened in New Haven, it was bound to fail because you can’t tell somebody, “okay, we have these programs and if you don’t do this, you’re going to go to jail.” You can’t force anybody into any kind of program and to penalize them because they’re not ready or they have other reasons why they don’t want to do it, it’s just totally wrong.
RS: Right. If I remember correctly, one of the detriments of the program in New Haven was they were misdemeanor sentences so people would rather appear before a judge and get their sentence waived or the case dismissed rather than having to report regularly to seeing a social worker or clinical care advocate and something like that. And often, I think the argument that we had originally in some of those meetings was that we were asking these individuals to divert themselves back into social services that they’d already exhausted. They’d already been through those services, there was no improvement in service, it was just pushing them back into the stream. So what are some thoughts that you have on that?
BC: Yeah, so if you tried a few programs and they didn’t work for whatever reason, and then you’re told, “go back to them,” you’re going to say no because you know what works for you and what doesn’t. So yeah, you’re right. And also a big problem we had, they were for misdemeanors or minor offenses, when people who could really use diversion might have committed more serious crimes. There’s no support at all. So they were just ignoring a population that could use help. It’s just a revolving door.
RS: Just speaking about the Global Heath Justice Partnership in collaboration with SWAN, I remember reading through the GHJP’s collaborative report with SWAN. In fact, looking through it this morning, I remember seeing one of your quotes. You said, “until people understand how sex workers have been denied services and neglected by our systems, we can’t solve anything.” And I just was thinking about maybe harmful policing practices and how those are a barrier to street-based sex workers, especially in their accessing vital social services. I wanted to get your opinion on this: what are the main barriers to social services for sex workers and how does policing impact access?
BC: A lot of people don’t trust the services that are provided. SWAN goes into the community, we meet people where they are, ask them what they need and then do our best to provide it. For social service agencies, the person has to come to them, go across town to get mental health treatment, whatever problems that you have. When you live a life in the street, it’s very difficult to trust somebody. And then to expect you to go into an office and sit down and open up? They make no effort at all to come to you and to reach out to you and get to know you, to build trust. I think that’s a big problem.
People are in it basically for the paycheck and we’ve seen that. They don’t understand how sometimes it’s difficult just to get yourself together, to find the money to take a bus to see them, to have money to come back. Especially when the trust isn’t there and if you experienced something bad about the program in the first place.
I think there should be more street outreach. If you’re serious about helping someone, get out of your office and go see where they live. See how it is on the street.