"Ask Them What They Need": 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 3 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): NIMBY (“Not in my Backyard”) is alive and well in New Haven. How has NIMBY impacted Sex Workers and Allies Network? Obviously, SWAN is one the most renowned outreach groups in New Haven but I imagine you have—
Beatrice Codianni (BC): We’re the only one for sex workers.
RS: But I imagine you have people who are also advocating against your work. What do you do about that? Have you faced a lot of detractors?
BC: Yeah, we do. But I was invited to talk to a community management team and I wanted to come in with a suit of armor. I was blown away though because people got what we were doing and they thanked us. But there are some people who just don’t understand it and they just think that people should be arrested. Then what? Is that going to stop it?
All the money you’re going to spend to put somebody in jail, you don’t think the police in New Haven have better things to do than to pick up somebody from the street?
But I have to say, working with the police, we’ve talked to them and they seem to get it—like in Fair Haven, they don’t try to hassle anybody. They get complaints all the time and basically one of the sergeants told them, “I’m not going to arrest people because that’s not going to solve the problem.” It’s a waste of taxpayer’s dollars, it’s humiliating people, it’s criminalizing them for loitering when they have no place to live.
We get criticism. But if somebody calls the New Haven Police Department and says that there are syringes near their property or something, they’ll call me and we will go pick them up—so there’s not nearly as many syringes on the street. On a Saturday we average taking back about 2,000 syringes.
So the city’s working with us. People don’t realize there’s anywhere from 25 to 35 people overdosing weekly who don’t die because they were given Narcan. The city is helping us get the message out and supporting us. They support us with giving out syringes. They don’t hassle us at all about that.
I’ve also talked to them about doing some kind of training for police officers so we can talk to the rookies that are just coming on, and also to the older officers who may have a different mindset. And we have also done trainings for primary care at Yale and Connecticut Mental Health and other organizations—if you’re going to provide services to sex workers, this is what you need to know, these are the words you shouldn’t use, this is what you might bring with you. You don’t tell them what you can do, you ask them what they need.
RS: I think that’s key. I think that’s something that a lot of public health programs fail to do. This is a pretty common refrain: “nothing about us, without us.” How do you have a program that is supposed to treat a particular patient population and not invite them to the table and say, “What do you need? How can we respond?” And I think SWAN does a really great job with that because it’s led by people with lived experience. I think one thing that I would like to ask you about is the idea of what harm reduction means to you all at SWAN. And maybe you can just highlight a little bit about how harm reduction differs from other models?
BC: For me, harm reduction, and I’ve said this a lot, means meeting people where they’re at, asking them what they need and then doing your best to give the services or supplies they need that will keep people safer and healthier. It’s going out in the community, building trust. They might ask for something one day, they might ask for something different another day. It’s not telling them you have to stop selling sex, or you have to stop using drugs, or get a job. It’s “hey, we’re here.”
Harm reduction is talking to people, finding out their needs, treating them with respect and dignity and fighting like hell for them against whoever’s trying to bring them down.
RS: What a great mission. I totally agree with that. And speaking of this sort of broader fight against injustice, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests—let’s be honest, racial injustice has been going on far longer than George Floyd’s death. Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, these are just recent examples of something that’s been pretty institutionalized in American society unfortunately for generations—And I think all of us are starting to think generally about what just policing looks like. I read from a recent article in Newsweek that 229 Black people had passed away since George Floyd’s death due to police violence. What risks do sex workers, particularly sex workers of color, face during police interactions and how can these risks be minimized?
BC: First of all, like in New Haven they stopped doing stings. They don’t arrest anybody for sex work but they still, sometimes in different parts of the city, get calls about loitering and trespassing. Those are bullshit crimes and some cops will arrest people for them. That just starts a whole big thing. They give you a ticket, and you’re trying to survive and you don’t have money, so you’re not going to pay that ticket. So then there’s an arrest warrant. So when there’s an arrest warrant they come and pick you up and put you in a holding cell.
And then the person goes to court and they give them a fine that they can’t pay. There’s some prosecutors and judges who just dismiss the charges. All of that for what? Let’s get housing, let’s get drop-in centers.
And for women, there’s basically no shelter beds. If you’re on the street and if you’re a person of color you’re going to get targeted more.