Project STEP (Sex Trafficking and Exploitation Prevention) was established in 2013 with the goal of educating individuals who’ve committed such crimes and instilling empathy for their victims. It was based on a program at San Quentin State Prison, conceived by Louis A. Scott, an inmate serving time for a high-profile sex trafficking case.
The program uses a curriculum that is structured around information gathered from people incarcerated for sex trafficking. The 27-week program was put on hold due to COVID-19, but a free correspondence or online course is offered in English and Spanish as well as a course specifically for juvenile offenders.
“Our curriculum is unique,” said Oana Mihaltan, president and founder of the nonprofit. “We choose to address childhood issues, getting to the root causes of why individuals choose to participate in this practice of exploitation.”
Coming from Romania, a country where many young men and women are lured into and introduced to sex trafficking, Mihaltan felt the need to do something about the crime that continues to exploit children and communities around the world. Mihaltan’s own daughter was a victim of sex trafficking and many of her daughter’s friends are still trapped in its cycle.
Instead of allowing people to go to prison only to get out and commit the same crimes, “I decided to do something about it,” she said. “My objective is to stop the exploitation of children.”
Mihaltan discovered that most people who committed crimes of sex trafficking were themselves victimized when they were younger or were raised in homes where the behavior was present. “What I can tell is that people hurt others, and a lot of that hurt is derived from childhood trauma that is never processed and passed over into adulthood,” Mihaltan said.
She noted that victims were as young as 10 or 11 and individuals as young as 13 were calling themselves “pimps.”
She chose a restorative justice model for the program, which she felt was integral to building an effective curriculum. “It is something to sit across from a person and have them explain to you in detail how they have been sexually abused by adult men and women, and you begin to see a pattern after speaking with so many offenders.”
Though her background in business administration helped establish the program, Mihaltan said it hasn’t been easy, adding that there had been a lot of negative feedback about her work on social media.
Still, Mihaltan believes that by educating offenders about the impact of their crimes on the victim, the victim’s family, their own family and their community, it is more likely that they will not commit those crimes again.
“Hurt people hurt others and healed people heal one another,” she said. “If we can instill a sense of empathy in offenders and educate them on how what they are doing is wrong, there is a potential that they could be our greatest allies.”
When she discusses sexual exploitation, she asks individuals in the program how they would feel if the individual that was being exploited had been their sister, brother or even their mother. She said that they usually respond violently. Her response: “That tells you that you are doing something wrong, engaging in this behavior.”
In 2013, the sentence for human trafficking was increased in California, from a previous three-to-nine-year range to an automatic 15 years to life and a $1.5 million fine.
She recognizes the need for punishment, but does not consider a lifetime in prison to be the solution, which is why she chose to focus on healing rather than punishing.
“We must also feel empathy for those that are incarcerated and get them the help that they need while they are incarcerated, so they do not create more victims upon their release,” she said. “If we cannot feel empathy for the next person, then what does that say about us as individuals?”
Mihaltan said it was important to provide a safe space for offenders to talk about victimization. “It is important to get it all out of you so that you are not continually hurting inside and hurting others,” she said, adding, “There is nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to sharing what happened to you as a child.”
Mihaltan feels her message is important for everyone. She envisions education programs like Project STEP also working outside of prison to put a stop to sexual exploitation.
Project STEP hosted a symposium in 2016 at San Quentin, which involved district attorneys, school teachers, members of the community, law enforcement and inmates. Mihaltan hopes to hold others when coronavirus restrictions are lifted. Mule Creek State Prison in Ione may be a possible venue.
Mihaltan said her program was in “dire need” of volunteers to come inside the prisons to bring in the curriculum. Project STEP is open to working with other nonprofits that share its goals.
Mihaltan also encourages people to be on the lookout for victims of exploitation.
“In most cases, you will recognize young women and men whose demeanor changes,” she said, noting that they become confrontational and aggressive. “They will begin wearing different clothing and jewelry and begin socializing with a new group of people, and often get tattoos as a mark of branding.”
Such cases should be reported to local law enforcement or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or HumanTraffickingHotline.org.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.