"We Need to Fight for Decriminalization": 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 4 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): Just asking about accessibility of shelter beds. How had the pandemic influenced availability? And another thing that I just thought about: sex work is not a nine-to-five job and when sex workers need to get a bed for the day, I imagine there’s complications that arise from having to leave the shelter. Has anybody ever talked to you about that?
Beatrice Codianni (BC): Yeah, I actually went to talk to people at a New Haven shelter two and a half years ago, and we said “sex work is a job.” If somebody said they had a shift in a factory or McDonald’s, they could come in late and nobody would say a word. But if you’re a sex worker, you can’t: you have to line up like four o’clock in the afternoon for a bed and then you have to get out at six o’clock in the morning. And during the pandemic, they cut their beds in half. There was no room for a lot of people.
RS: How has the pandemic affected the work that SWAN is doing. What does a post-pandemic world look like for sex workers? How does it look for SWAN? Will anything have changed?
BC: So the only thing that changed is that we were out there handing out supplies—masks and hand sanitizer and more syringes—because we didn’t know when we would see our members again. Our work didn’t stop because of the pandemic. This was the time people needed supplies even more.
RS: A lot of my work deals with children. I was talking to some folks at several New Haven advocacy organizations that work with homeless children. We always do a yearly Point-in-Time count, right in the middle of the coldest months. I understand the logic: the logic is at that point of year, they think most people will either be in the warming centers or they’re going to be in shelters for the evening. But it fails to consider survival sex work where you co-habit with someone during the coldest time of year just to get out of the street because it’s freezing. And with all these pandemic lockdown regulations, has that changed the way that sex workers do their work. Is it less on the street, more indoor? I don’t really know how it works.
BC: If somebody could find a date that would take them home for a few days, then that would work. But it didn’t stop. It didn’t stop at all. And you’re right about the count. A lot of people don’t want to go in shelters. They don’t like shelters. In some of the warming centers, you have to sit in a chair for all these hours and then they kick you out at six o’clock in the morning.
So they don’t go at all. I think only a couple of our members ever went into one of the warming centers but they would sleep wherever they could. We’d collect blankets and sleeping bags and tents. They would make do that way. In April, anybody with temporary housing in a hotel or motel were kicked out. So now it’s back in the street.
RS: So Beatrice, I just have two more quick questions for you. Is there any sort of general recommendation that you can make to the public about what we can do to support sex workers, to further the mission of SWAN?
BC: If people could support us by first of all talking with us. I’m just saying, some people get it, but a lot of people don’t. You’re never going to arrest away sex work. Instead of stigmatizing, try supporting people, and SWAN in particular. We always can use supplies, like wipes—wipes are what people wash up with if they don’t have a place to go to wash up. In the winter, we need coats. In the summer, we need insect repellent and sunscreen, things like that. Monetary donations are always appreciated: we get gift cards so they can get something to eat.
There’s lots of ways to get involved. We need volunteers who know how to drive a van. We were fortunate enough to be able to, through a grant, get a van which now takes us to all different parts of the city. Before, we were primarily located in Fair Haven and now we can go to more diverse populations. But we need committed people who say, “okay, I can drive this day,” and stick to it. We need admin volunteers to help us with administration work. We’re a small organization and we could use help from the community. And if anybody wants to give a tent or two, that would help also.
RS: Any parting thoughts, Beatrice? Maybe some things that we can do to support organizations like SWAN? Any unjust laws or policies we should be calling to change? I know from our last conversation, probably a year ago, we talked a little bit about FOSTA (the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act). Any thought on advocacy angles? Can the public do something to help on a broader scale?
BC: FOSTA and SESTA actually hurt our members because they cause them to go deeper underground and go into unsafe places. We need to fight for decriminalization because that’s the only way we’re going to ensure people are treated with more dignity. When somebody sees their mother’s name in the paper, or their picture, those kids face hell. Landlords, when they see a prostitution charge, might not rent to them. This is just to say we need to decriminalize sex work and get people away from the idea that by arresting people it’s going to solve the problem. It’s not, ever. It never has and never will.
RS: Thank you so much for your time, Beatrice. It has been a pleasure.
BC: Thank you so much.