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Prosties Flourish in New Orleans

New Orleans- For prostitutes working the streets of New Orleans, the post-flood era has sparked a boom in business, largely owing to the influx of an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 out-of-town workers away from their families with money to blow, police said.

It’s “like the Super Bowl” for sex workers, said Deputy Chief James Scott, commander of the Police Department’s Intelligence Division, from his division’s headquarters in a trailer.

Though police are making more arrests for prostitution than before Hurricane Katrina, Scott said quantifying such results is difficult because undercover officers often can’t develop conclusive evidence to make a clear-cut prostitution case. It often takes a transfer of cash, “getting naked with them” and clear evidence that the prostitute wants to trade a sexual favor for cash and not just because “she thinks you’re hot,” Scott said.

Suspected prostitutes in today’s New Orleans, where a lack of bed space in the Orleans Parish Prison has authorities routinely transferring hundreds of prisoners accused of more serious crimes to out-of-town jails, are often being given municipal summonses rather than jail time for lesser offenses such as solicitation. And even when suspected prostitutes are taken into custody, they’re often back on the streets in a matter of minutes, Scott said.

With the lure of big money and small consequences, he said, the city has attracted out-of-town prostitutes who ply their trade mostly in the French Quarter.

Before Katrina, most vice officers could identify many of the prostitutes by name, Scott said.

“It’s just a totally different crowd (in the Quarter now). If you look, you’ll see more males in the crowd. They have a tremendous amount of cash to spend. And they’re out there and they’re looking for women. They’re looking to drink and have a good time. They’re stuck here without their families, and that has attracted prostitutes.”

Prostitutes in this Wild West-like new New Orleans have stepped up their game, Scott said, moving away from street solicitation and onto a more advanced means of selling their wares: the Internet. Prostitutes hand prospective clients a card with an e-mail or Web-site address where they can make “dates.”

The new technique makes it much more difficult for vice officers to make cases because they only get the e-mail address on the initial face-to-face meeting, and then only if the prostitute believes they’re a real customer and not a cop. Only later, after making the date via e-mail, can they make an arrest at the second meeting. Many out-of-town prostitutes have come to New Orleans for the same reasons they might visit another city during, say, a major sporting event. “They follow the Super Bowls, the big games, conventions, things like that. What we have here is like the Super Bowl,” he said.

The pimps who run the lives of sex workers also have become more sophisticated. Some women seeking the opportunity to live and work in the United States are being brought in from Europe, Asia and Latin America as virtual slaves and forced into prostitution, a problem that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is attacking with a grant of $450,000 announced during his visit last week to New Orleans.

Law enforcement officials disagree over whether the abundance of prostitutes visible in some parts of the city is the result of insufficient jail space or light charges against those picked up. An order by Criminal District Judge Calvin Johnson that the parish prison release municipal offenders means eligible suspects must be released unless they have active warrants, are charged with a crime against another person or are involved in a drunken-driving case.

And most of the suspected sex workers are arrested on municipal charges, Scott said. Those who are actually taken into custody and turned over to the Orleans Parish Prison are often set free.

“Prostitution has increased,” Police Superintendent Warren Riley said this week through spokeswoman Bambi Hall. Though saying the vice squad is addressing the problem, he said that “the primary issue is the lack of bed space at the Orleans Parish Prison, which creates the inability to keep prostitutes in lock-up.”

Orleans Parish Prison spokeswoman Renee Lapeyrolerie disagreed. The prison, she said, is following judicial orders to release people charged with simple municipal offenses.

“Obviously Chief Riley is confused,” Lapeyrolerie said of the judicial order. Those eligible for release haven’t been charged with prostitution, a state charge that would keep them in jail, she said. If police give prostitutes a lesser municipal charge as a way to get them off the street, they may indeed be released, as per Johnson’s order.

“No arrested person has been released from OPP because of a lack of bed space or overcrowding,” Lapeyrolerie said. Since June, the Sheriff’s Office has contracted with other parish jails and the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections to hold any overflow of prisoners, she said.

Another 200 prisoners will be transferred from Orleans Parish Prison to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola by the end of the week.

“There is a constant shuffle of prisoners,” Scott said. “We understand that (the criminal sheriff) does not want to fill beds with municipal charges except for domestic violence and DUI.”

Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office has to decide each day which prisoners to hold and which prisoners to release, Scott said, and it’s often a choice between a suspected armed robber, burglar, thief or prostitute.

Lapeyrolerie said the decision isn’t about choice but about the eligibility of prisoners under Johnson’s order.

Between June 30 and Sept. 29, the Orleans Parish Prison has shipped 2,279 inmates to other jails, Lapeyrolerie said.

Officials in the NOPD and OPP said eight temporary jails under construction by FEMA will allow the prison to house up to 800 municipal offenders, if and when the judicial order is lifted.

Lapeyrolerie said the medium-security jails will be completed by the end of the month.


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