By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Late one Friday afternoon, a car pulled up to Jackie McReynolds on a busy city street. Three men forced her inside and drove her to an alley, where they punched, choked and raped her.
That day in 1987, McReynolds started thinking about leaving the prostitution business, which she did four years later. "I thought I was going to die right then and there," she said.
McReynolds, 50, still prowls the streets, only she hopes to help women who are following the same destructive path that defined her life for so many years. She tempts those who have been arrested with this offer: Spend four months with her, interning and learning life skills, for the chance to avoid up to six months in jail.
Her program is called Angels Project Power. Nakita Harrison, 34, a sex worker for nearly two decades, was in and out of jail before signing up a year ago. She now rents a furnished apartment from the group and works as a grocery cashier, her first legitimate job.
"She speaks our language," Harrison said. "She knows us and allows us to be ourselves as long as we remain respectful to her and the other women in the group."
Many of these women, ages 18 to 60, are mothers, grandmothers and even great-grandmothers. They would blend in easily in a grocery store line or at midweek church services. Their clothes are baggy, not tight. Instead of high heels, many go to work in tennis shoes. Most find their clients on the street, out in the open, with little protection from sexually transmitted diseases, violence and arrest.
Most of the women are trying to support their drug habits, and others are engaged in "survival sex" to pay the bills or buy food for their children, McReynolds said.
"Putting these women in jail isn't going to solve the problem. They just become repeat offenders," McReynolds said. "They have to change from within."
* * *
Angels Project Power, started in 2004, is a way to prod that change along.
The program got its name from the celestial beings McReynolds credits with keeping her alive when she was on the street. It includes counseling sessions, literacy classes, other coursework, and internships with retail businesses and other local employers.
McReynolds and her counselors go to court to identify women who could use their help. They submit reports to judges about participants. But the hardest work comes in the daily meetings with 40 or so women on the first floor of a Northeast Washington apartment building, where the program is based.
When McReynolds walks in, the room quiets. The women know the outlines of her story: She was 11 when she started smoking marijuana and drinking J&B scotch. When McReynolds was 13, a 60-year-old neighbor paid her $40 for sex. Five years later, she was using heroin and selling her body in alleys, cars and abandoned buildings. She quit school and started punching a street clock, split shift, 5 to 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., charging $20 at a time when crack addicts were getting as little as $5.
McReynolds tells the women that low self-esteem is behind their behavior, and she embraces the role of disciplinarian. She hugs a crying woman who says she missed classes to tend to her sick mother but added a month to the woman's required stay. "You have one last chance," McReynolds says. "You can't help your mother if you don't help yourself first."
Her goal is to save them before their behavior catches up with them. In 1985, McReynolds learned she was HIV-positive. She carries bottles of water because the drugs she must take often leave her throat dry and voice hoarse.
Not everyone is receptive to spending four months of her time going to classes, three or four hours a day, and staying out of trouble. The program graduated 129 women between October 2006 and December of last year. But 209 others were booted out for failing drug tests or missing classes.
One recent afternoon, after classes, two women got into a car instead of the van waiting to take them to their residential program. Staffers ran screaming after them, but the women did not return.
Another day, a woman who had been admonished for talking out of turn refused to write "I will not talk," 200 times. She threw her notepad, pen and folder and stormed out. "It's bull-- ," said the 26-year-old as she strutted down the street. She faces a month in jail. "That's if they catch me," she said. "So what? It's only 30 days."
* * *
McReynolds had been nonchalant about her behavior, too, until the rape.
Her mother, Naomi Mathis, now 77, recalls many nights spent looking for McReynolds when she was a teenager. At times, months passed without any word from her.
"I thought I was going to crack. I was helpless. She was so stubborn and headstrong," said Mathis, who raised McReynolds's daughter, Kia. "All I could do was pray."
Eventually, McReynolds got therapy and found jobs as an HIV counselor and outreach worker for women trying to get their lives together after prison. She got married, but the relationship didn't last. Among other things, flashbacks from the streets made intimacy difficult, McReynolds said.
At 45, she got her high school diploma. Later, she earned a bachelor's degree online at Belford University and a master's in human services at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. She's studying for her doctorate at Capella University, specializing in the impact of trauma on women.
McReynolds struggled initially to raise enough money to run her program. The past two years, she has gotten steady funding -- $175,000 last year -- to hire four full-time counselors and three part-time workers. And in January, the U.S attorney's office in the District awarded its "John School" program to McReynolds. Men arrested for solicitation pay $300 and sit through a day of lectures to get their cases dropped.
Despite her daughter's success, Mathis has reservations about the work. She said she is proud of the achievements, but "I wish she would not be involved with those women and get away from that environment altogether."
Police, prosecutors and judges applaud the program. Detective Mark Gilkey, a 27-year veteran of the D.C. police prostitution unit, said few of McReynolds's graduates return to the street. D.C. Superior Court Judge Craig Iscoe, who oversees some of the cases, said women who had drug problems but weren't arrested for solicitation have asked to be admitted into Angels Project Power.
McReynolds holds people accountable but understands that they are fallible, the judge said.
That's one reason McReynolds added general equivalency diploma, computer and business classes to go with instruction about self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. The women go through mock job interviews, learn how to write résumés and get coaching in how to dress for the corporate world.
"When they were prostitutes, they were negotiating, making deals, selling and making that money. So instead of selling their bodies, we want them to learn how to sell their minds," she said.
Angela Simmons, 43, who worked the streets for more than 10 years, walked into a recent session dressed in what she thought was business attire. McReynolds told Simmons that her skirt was too short and too tight and that she needed to watch how she interacted with men. "You still have that flirtation spirit on you," McReynolds said.
Simmons, who didn't leave prostitution even when she had a broken leg and was on crutches, has nothing but admiration for McReynolds. "She taught us how to be ladies. I thought of myself as a woman, obviously, but never a lady," she said.
McReynolds also oversees a month-long, 12-bed inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for women on North Capitol Street in collaboration with her mentor, Marsha Richerson, executive director of Safe Haven Outreach Ministries. Richerson called McReynolds "a miracle" who can reach the women better than police, judges or counselors.
But not always.
At a recent hearing, McReynolds, dressed in a blue suit, told the judge that a woman sent to her program stopped attending.
"She took the program as a joke, Your Honor," McReynolds said. The judge ordered the woman jailed for 90 days, and a marshal escorted her away. McReynolds closed her notebook, shoved it in her briefcase and moved on to the next case.