Human Trafficking and Mass Incarceration: A Conversation with Drew Wiley



Alongside his wife, Jessica, Drew Willey founded Restoring Justice. He currently serves as the organization’s CEO. Drew left a career as an accountant to attend law school at the University of Houston Law Center. An internship with the Texas Innocence Network showed him firsthand how the legal system dehumanizes poor people, people of color, and those with mental health conditions.

After training from Gideon’s Promise, Drew became a criminal defense attorney, primarily working on the representation of the indigent. He is dedicated to providing passionate, proactive, and client-centered representation to marginalized people in the greater Houston area. This work eventually led Drew to found Restoring Justice to not only provide high-quality, holistic counsel to those who need it the most, but also find ways to expose, disrupt, and fix the systemic racism and discrimination in our criminal justice system.

Drew’s work as a public defender and as the founder of Restoring Justice has been featured in publications like The New York Times, Texas Monthly, Texas Tribune, and the Houston Chronicle. Drew’s song on repeat is currently This is America by Childish Gambino.

Kathryn: Hey guys this is Kathryn here again from A 2nd Cup. Today’s interview is part of our ongoing series, where we are examining the intersection of different social issues that both influence and affect human trafficking. So today I’m talking with Drew Wiley, who is with Restoring Justice, which is a local nonprofit that works to address the very broad issue of mass incarceration through holistic, client-centered legal representation and support. Drew is the Founder and CEO of Restoring Justice, and so Drew, I see in your bio that you left a career as an accountant to go to law school. And from there, you did an internship with the Texas Innocence Network, where you saw the way that the legal system really dehumanizes people who are poor, or who are people of color, those who have mental health conditions. So I can really see why that would lead you to found Restoring Justice, but can you please unpack that for us, and tell us why you saw that need and a little bit about the issue of mass incarceration.

Drew: Yeah, thanks for having me on. Mass incarceration, you know, is a term that I think really has some solidified definition from the book, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, which really describes how America’s history – racial oppression – has just taken on new forms that never have been eradicated. It went from slavery to the Jim Crow era, to now we’re in mass incarceration, where these messages of fear-mongering and these kind of dog-whistle messages through the War on Drugs and really, every national President candidate who has been in has just increased incarceration, which is filtered down into the local counties and that messaging of fear-mongering has really applied and convinced people to build more prisons, more jails, and everything else. So, the harm that that system provides is one that really I guess, was not foreseen, if we want to be gracious to the folks that built it. But it’s basically the mass increase of the use of incarceration from about 1970, right when the Civil Rights Movement had its successes. You started seeing this very direct uptick of numbers of people being incarcerated – really at a much, much, much higher rate than the population had increased. Like, population increased over 100% of incarceration going faster. So, yeah, the need is very great. And there is a lot of problems. So Restoring Justice is trying to enter into one of those sectors.

Kathryn: So I heard you talk about how this is something that is systemic, in nature, it’s been around as a part of, in essence, the founding of our country. Um, what would you say are some of the causes and factors that perpetuate this system and allow it to continue the way that it is?

Drew: Yeah, I mean, there was a status quo in America. Right, it was white Euro-centric people coming into this country and really pro-actively obliterating anyone else who did not have a white, Euro-centric mindset, whether that was Native Americans, and then like, Columbus in 16 – well – whenever the first slaves were first brought and how they were treated. You know, so the question about what are the root causes and factors that perpetuate it, I think it’s this ongoing, generational inequity. You know, people don’t use language anymore, but where do they live, who do they talk to you, what is their justification for why and how they live the way and where they live, the jobs they serve, the clients they serve, right, there’s just this general status quo of inequity, where racism still exists. I mean, people have used the term implicit bias now, but it’s just a reality to make us feel better about what’s just explicitly racism. So those root causes and factors, to me, it’s fear. Right, there is fear that people live in themselves, there’s trauma that people – unaddressed trauma, that may manifest itself as fear in this world, and that really leads to oppressive and prejudice and bias and all of those same kind of mindsets that has allowed this system to thrive, this incarceration system of oppression thrive.

Kathryn: Mhmm. You talk about racism being a huge underpinning factor in our criminal justice system. I’ve seen some stats and figures about disproportionality in terms of ethnic and racial representation within the American criminal justice. Do you have some of those stats and figures handy, can you give us a picture of what looks like?

Drew: You know, the best one I have is probably, and I’m trying to remember the exact number, but it was a study from the Prison Policy institute that showed that in 2011 people that are born if you’re white you have like a 1 in 16 chance of going to jail. If you’re black, you have a 1 in 3 chance. I mean, what’s equitable about that?

Kathryn: It’s incredibly drastic. Yeah. So, something, just as an observation from me as an individual, it feels like our criminal justice system – the structure of it, the purpose of it – is punitive in nature. And I know that there are programs that you know, talk about being rehabilitative, but for the most part, it’s a punishment for an action. And it feels like it doesn’t really seem to take into consideration who that person is or what role they played in their community. So what are some things that Restoring Justice would like to see, for you or your organization, would propose to seek in reform of that system?

Drew: Yeah, I’ll answer your question by kind of addressing how things are, and then you know, some changes we foresee. I mean, the system of structure of how it’s in place now, again it goes back to that fear. You have got a situation where people think that their only choice is to call the police, who then comes in, and at that very moment, the second a policeman is called – whether it’s violent, non-violent kind of call – as soon as 911 is called, there is a fear response and there’s an adversarial system. I mean, it’s just well into the tenants of the system. I mean this is an openly admitted thing in law school all the time, right. It’s an adversarial system and so I am adversarial to the prosecutor, the victim is adversarial to the accused, and the way that that is built, you’re right, it turns it into a punitive system. Unfortunately, even the side representing the victim, the State of Texas, that is supposed to be doing that, they don’t actually really take into account what the victim wants. So like, there’s not really any opportunity for that person to be heard. You know the prosecutor certainly talks to them, investigator certainly talks to them, but then they just kind of send the case in through the churning wheels of the justice system without any real kind of care or humanization even of the victims in that. So, when you’re talking about this initial fear, adversarial, punitive system, you’re right. It’s just pure dehumanization from the get-go. Our website, if you go to the resources section has an indigent defense timeline that shows how every stage in that process is geared just slightly, if you’re dehumanized by how .1 degree, by the time you’re done in every step of that system, well you know, there’s really no hope for the folks that are getting that smaller treatment slightly worse at each stage.

So your question about what we would propose, Restoring Justice, we do a lot of work within the indigent defense system, because that’s where a lot of this dehumanization occurs. If we can switch that dehumanization into humanization, where we can restore dignity, restore grace, restore mercy in for those folks that everyone says should be – everyone else in the system says should be dehumanized – if we can proactively do the restoring for that then we can someday get to a place where the system can be changed to a restorative justice system. And from punitive to restorative means that like all voices will actually be heard. So we get everybody to the table, we get the victim, we get their representative. We get the accused, we get their representative. We bring in the community, we bring in all justice system participants and stakeholders – the judge, the court staff, the probation office. We all come to the table together and through a healing circle process, there is an individualized, a humanized approach. To what do we all need to heal this harm. Because when crime has happened, it’s ultimately harm, right. There’s been a tear, a break in society. So what our system should do is work to heal that tear, heal that harm, heal that break. And you can do that if all people come together with that approach. We’re very far away from doing that. But, that is, our ultimate goal in the work that we’re doing. 

Kathryn: Mhmm. Do you have any anecdotal data or even studies that have been done to show the overall positive impact that restorative justice has on crime and our community versus punitive justice?

Drew: Oh yeah. I mean, there’s a whole movement. I definitely consider it kind of a grace of God that our name was Restoring Justice cause we actually came up with it before I knew about the mass movement of restorative justice. So, it started from indigenous peoples’ roots, it’s kind of taken hold in Canada, and there’s a lot of really good anecdotal stories and YouTubes and stuff about it. And then, yeah, data – it’s a slow movement in the criminal system. I will say, like, most of the restorative justice movement in America has kind of taken roots in the education system. Even though, when you kind of go back to the roots of it, the indigenous people, the programs that were started – there’s also a group out of the UK that was pushing it out – but it was meant to reshape the criminal justice system. Americans just kind of took it and well let’s just use it for child discipline. 

So we’re trying to bring it back. So, I say that because it’s slow. I mean, you’ve got the few cities across the country that are doing community-based restorative justice courts. Treating it more kind of like a diversion program rather than redefining like how all of the system operates. But, the places that it has been done, I believe there’s a few in LA, there’s a few in New York. The one that I’m most aware of is the one in Lawndale community in Chicago and the staff out of there is gosh, yeah, the recidivism rate being super low, the community feeling empowered and healing, and ultimately – I mean this is the thing – the fear-mongering and the arguments for the people that built mass incarceration was always public safety, public safety. It’s this blind public safety. But actually what these community courts’ restorative justice is finding is if you really want to make a community safer, you get all the stakeholders and you get everybody invested and you humanize everybody  – then that will actually lead to truly safer communities. So, if anybody wants to tote the public safety reform line, well they better be talking restorative justice or else their basis for it is nothing else but some kind of self-agenda fear-mongering.

Kathryn: Mm, yeah. And as a side note, we will link several resources to this interview and our website so that anyone who’s listening can deepen your learning by looking at some of these other systems and how they’re having a positive impact. So now that we’ve kind of touched on the overarching criminal justice system and the basis for it, I do want to shift to look specifically at how the structure of this system can impact the issue of human trafficking. So one area I want to ask you about, there’s a great many advocates who call for the decriminalization of sex work as a means to fight commercial sex trafficking, so I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about this movement and how within the context of the criminal justice system this could help or harm trafficking victims.

Drew: Yeah, I ask you you to give me the grace to kind of take my answer with a grain of salt on this one because I am not part of that movement directly, I just kind of pick up the influences from it, but decriminalization, in general, is a move that’s going to start the discussion about ending the system of mass incarceration. As far as victims in sex trafficking, it kind of operates like the lowest hanging fruit from the system. Because you’ve got this system that is fueled by dehumanizing people and churning people through cages, right, through the jail, through the prison systems, and how many times people come in touch with that system is often the largest determining factor for you know, how much time they spend in a cage, and which kind of cage, and where that cage is going to be. 

When you think about sex trafficking victims, you know, they’re the ones that are unfortunately easiest to find, because their oppressors, right, are actively putting them out there as the most vulnerable. So the most vulnerable, right, so then you’ve got these pro-police initiatives that want to eradicate some community sex trafficking, well what can they do? They can pick up all the “prostitutes” and shake them down, for lack of a better term, in order to try to get at the higher up organizers that frankly, these agencies are not set up to investigate that. I mean, you know, there’s a difference between local agencies and federal agents for a reason, right. Federal agents could certainly go in and find the bureaucracy and do the long-term kind of wiretapping and all of that stuff to find who the head of an organization is who’s trafficking these females. The local agencies that are attacking this issue are not doing that. They don’t have the resources, they don’t have the training, they frankly don’t have the care to go do that. They’re just going to go pick up the people they find on the street, put them in a cage, and forget that anything else needs to happen.

Kathryn: Mhmm. Which is incredibly traumatic, just in and of itself. So can you talk a little bit more about how policing can impact trafficking as well?

Drew: Yeah, I mean like I said, I think it probably attacks the victims of that system rather than the actual oppressors who should be brought in, and figured out how to answer for what they’re doing. Another kind of problem that, forgive me, I don’t mean to be, this sounds really anti-police and I’m not anti some good-hearted police, however, the structure of police is something that – the training and their goals – is something that does need to be redefined, requestioned, redone, and done away with, frankly. Just because even the most good-hearted police officer is still having a code of silence about the bad police officer next to them, and so, one of the really kind of problems in this area that I’ve seen and heard about – not seen myself, but heard about and seen cases of – is where police will actually, as part of this low hanging fruit just go pick up everybody on the street – you know, police are gonna take part and they use that as part of their sting, so they will actually use the prostitutes’ services and just delete that from their offense report, right.

So you look at these victims, and they’re supposed to be made safe from police officer’s involvement because they’re being trafficked, and yet you have a police officer essentially sexually assaulting them without ever being held accountable and without ever being, having to answer to that, because they just don’t include that part in their offense report. You want to talk about trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma, on top of how in the world do you ever open your voice and be honest and truthful about an experience like that, when you’ve got someone with a badge that you’re having to stand up against?

Kathryn: Yeah

Drew: It’s heartbreaking.

Kathryn: Oh absolutely. I know too, that the City of Houston has done a lot of work  – the Mayor’s Office has instituted a task force on human trafficking. I know that there are some programs coming out of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, all in effort to combat this issue from all of the various avenues that we have. And Project 180 is one of those that I’ve heard about. Can you tell us what that is?

Drew: Yeah, Project 180 is a great diversion program that the District Attorney’s Office has implemented. And it’s one where if there’s even the chance they’re a victim, they’re eligible to apply and get connected to a lot of resources, and go through a healing process that ultimately will lead to a dismissal of their case. So, it’s definitely a diversion away from the punitive system into more of a rehabilitative – it’s not quite restorative – but it is a way to try to provide some care for those who really shouldn’t be on the defendant side of the criminal justice system, which is again by a product of everything we’ve talked about, they just end up being there.

Kathryn: Yeah, so what is the benefit of a diversion program and how have you seen those operate in Houston?

Drew: I mean diversion programs, in general, are a mixed bag, right, I mean it’s about as different and varied as the different courtrooms. I mean each courtroom over there is its own little city, its own little chiefdom, and every diversion program is as well. So some diversion programs will lead to dismissals, some don’t. One, in particular, the mental health program they have over there, does not lead to a dismissal. Well, you know that’s an active admission that they’re going to go ahead and punish someone even though they recognize they were arrested solely because they’re mentally ill. So, you know I definitely have my mixed feelings on diversion programs, they just have to be run right, and they have to be run in a humanizing manner that protects the rights of everyone involved, including the defendant. Because sometimes you have to actually plead guilty in order to enter a diversion program, and that again just does away with all of your rights.

The other problem with diversion programs is too often prosecutors can use them as another touchpoint. So instead of decreasing, so you have this pile of cases on a prosecutor’s desk, instead of moving some of those cases away from the punitive system into this diversion program, they actually set it up to where police – the cases that don’t ever get to the prosecutor’s desk – the cases that an arrest isn’t warranted, it should be dismissed, it should never get charged, there was no probable cause, they’ll funnel those cases into the diversion program and call it a success. Yet, the system of mass incarceration, the cases sitting on the prosecutor’s desk, of people being wrongfully oppressed, that hasn’t changed at all. So you’ve just expanded the umbrella of the criminal justice system, to force people to touchpoint into it, who really have no business touching point into it.

So that being said, again, to speak to Project 180 in particular, it’s not, I don’t see it as a really difficult one. I think it’s a good one that is actually diverting. I think there are, I mean when you start to look at I mean, frankly the prostitution cases from Devon Anderson’s regime as Prosecutor to Kim Ogg’s regime, I mean Kim Ogg has just – that’s one area where she has just really done an incredible job on diverting. Like there are active Prosecutor’s desks who have a stack of prostitution cases that have gotten off their desk into Project 180 and they are very proactive in doing that. Which actually has me see some very interesting other faults of a diversion program, and it goes back to the core of restorative justice, which is when you’ve got defense attorneys for the poor – the court-appointed defense attorneys – who won’t show up but work against their clients’ interests, it actually prevents these diversion programs from working. So I’ve even seen some of these court-appointed attorneys where the prosecutor is advocating to send the client into the Project 180 diversion program and the court-appointed defense attorney laughs and starts making fun of the client, about how she could never take part in a program like that. Not out of the client’s interest, which would be justifiable, but just out of his own belief that the person is not worthy of going into this program or even having the opportunity.

So when you’ve got court-appointed attorneys they can actually work against some really good initiatives. So those would be cases where we get a call from a client, charged with that, and they say my court-appointed attorney has denied me my right to go into this diversion program. Well goodness, we would want to step in in those kinds of situations.

Kathryn: Yeah. I think what you’re saying just really speaks to how ingrained perceptions are, and just hearing that someone’s been charged with a crime automatically creates a bias for so many of us.

Drew: So many of us and unfortunately so many of their attorneys. There is just certainly a culture issue with court-appointed attorneys, and that’s exactly why restoring justice is trying to change that culture.

Kathryn: Mhmm. That’s great. So, I want to shift a little bit again and I’d like to talk about labor trafficking as well, because, data suggests that labor trafficking – which is when a person is exploited for their labor through force, fraud, or coercion, which can look like a number of circumstances – is actually occurring at much higher rates than sex trafficking and so as A 2nd Cup, we try to really draw attention to those issues as well because they are so prevalent. And so, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what our system’s faults are in addressing this and what wage theft is?

Drew: Yeah, the labor trafficking issue is an interesting one because you’ve got this crossover between immigration issues, economic equity issues, as well as trafficking issues, all at play in the abuse and oppression of human beings. Right, and it’s a really difficult one because imagine someone who has been trafficked for their labor, who has no power, I mean they are in their position being trafficked for labor for some reason – whether they are coming from another country, being brought in by the company illegally, whatever the circumstance is, imagine being accused of a crime and being in that situation. Imagine just going about your day, you have a family and you are powerless at work, because you’re being trafficked, and you happen to be overly stressed and you have on beer and because of your ethnicity the police officer in a rural county doesn’t know and they think your eyes are bloodshot. Doesn’t think that your speech is broken and slurred, because of a different ethnicity, so they go ahead and charge you with a DWI.

You know, even if you can prove you’re innocent, you’re completely shattered. Your complete life is just completely torn apart, you’re just totally beholden to being trafficked again, and we just talked about this system of retraumatizing, revictimizing, again and again and again. And, you know, wage theft is somewhat of a separate issue. I think it’s really interesting to think about wage theft just from, you know, whether labor trafficking is an issue or not, there’s a lot of cases where companies are not paying their employees. How many times are these low-level kind of manual labor jobs not being paid for the extra hour that they showed up early? Even illegally, they’re supposed to be [paid]. That’s just a really small example, BUT what that speaks to is tell me how many times a company has been charged with wage theft. You know, it’s very very very few. It just hardly ever happens. But how many times is someone charged with stealing baby clothes or baby food from Walmart? You know life essential kind of items. So when you start talking about that and you start talking about equity, who is this system serving?

Right, it’s oppressing the poor, the desperate, the needy. Whereas the people who are stealing wages, which actually when you run the math, there’s a book called Usual Cruelty, that really speaks to this as well, wage theft takes a significant more amount of dollars away from our economy and away from our citizens than any other petty theft does, and yet our system has just chosen to ignore wage theft because business owners shouldn’t be arrested, but poor people who need food should. That is a priority that our society has made an active decision on.

Kathryn: Mhmm. Yeah, that feels like a whole other issue that we could spend a lot of time on, but I would love if you could talk on the use of labor specifically within the prison system because I know there’s a lot of issues there, so could you talk on that?

Drew: Yeah, you know I told you before that we were going to be touching on a lot with our questions so that’s a whole other situation. I mean people don’t even think about the fact that the private prison industry, how it’s operating, you start talking about what’s going on in Sugar Land and the convict leasing system and how a version of that is still happening in our prisons today. Right I mean like, if you go drive up through Liberty County and into some of the prisons in Huntsville, you start getting into some of the more rural areas, well very easily you will drive past a cotton field with a white guard sitting on horseback, overseeing a bunch of black men in striped uniforms picking cotton. And that’s today, in 2020, that’s going on. You know, how is that picture of that, and those people are not getting paid, those people that are doing that work have nothing to send back to their families. And yet, there is economic growth being built into them sitting in that prison system. So you start talking about labor trafficking, exploitation, revictimization, you know I would hope there would be clearer answers from a societal perspective than what we have right now.

Kathryn: Yeah one of the resources that you sent over, that again will be linked on this page, show that there’s a 2017 study that showed that on average people who were incarcerated could earn as little as .86 cents up to a couple of dollars per day. Which when we think about average wages for someone who is not incarcerated, that’s pennies on a dollar —

Drew: And those are only the systems they’re tracking, I mean there’s free labor that’s being provided that’s probably not even factored into that.

Kathryn: Yeah, absolutely. And I can already hear you know a conversation where someone says well, “you do the crime, you do the time” right going back to the punitive system that we have, and certainly don’t hear me say that work is not something that we should not expect from someone because as an organization we definitely believe that there’s value in meaningful work for everyone. And especially because we know that work significantly contributes to a person’s self-esteem and purpose, that very belief is why we started Brazen Table, which is a job training program for survivors of human trafficking but when you’re talking about that work being exploitative, what impact does that have that you’ve seen on someone’s rehabilitation?

Drew: I mean it just further instills this mindset of being a number in the system that dehumanizes me and the system doesn’t care because they’re going to pay me .85 cents a day and so why would they ever feel fulfillment out of the work, because “hey wife” at home with 3 kids, “I can send you .20 cents today.” That is just as far as what you nailed it on the head, self-esteem, restoring humans – you know it totally cuts against that because it just dehumanizes them further.

Kathryn: Yeah. They’re still a person, even if they’ve committed a crime.

Drew: And we’ve all, I mean that’s sort of the thing is like, we are all criminals in our own right, we’ve all done things, we all have transgressions, that’s a part of the human nature. 

Kathryn: Yes.

Drew: it’s just about how we define those transgressions that have built this problematic system.

Kathryn: Yeah. And, so some of the things that you’ve said, Restoring Justice is doing a lot of work in this area and redefining how we view the system and how the system works. So what are some ways a person, an individual, can get involved with the work that you’re doing or just in supporting criminal justice reform?

Drew: One of the things we take a lot of pride in at Restoring Justice is being that answer to folks, that you go to so many town hall meetings, community events, expert panels where they’re going to talk about these problems and at the end it’s like, well what can I do? If I’m sitting watching, I’m listening to a podcast, if I’ve read this book, what can I do? And continuously you hear, well, donate some money, or vote differently, make sure you’re registered to vote. But to me that seems like a very filtered, indirect kind of a solution. 

So, at Restoring Justice, we’ve created the Adelphoi program. Which Adelphoi is Greek for brothers and sisters, to really just allow an everyday person. You don’t have to go be a lawyer, you don’t have to go be a social worker, you don’t have to go be a counselor, you can just come in and sit across the glass initially and then hopefully very quickly sit across the table from folks who are experiencing this inequitable oppression. And, if you’re willing to learn from them experientially, and support them, you know, emotionally through friendship, we really invite people to take part in you know, if you want to do something about victim assistance, come join us, and help us and be a part of someone’s freedom. One person’s freedom. I mean that’s why our slogan is ending mass incarceration one client and heart at a time. You know, come bring your heart in with us, and help us end mass incarceration, for this one person. Because if we can do it for this one person enough times, then we can restore the entire justice system.

Kathryn: Yeah, that’s awesome. So, do you have any recommendations on additional resources aside from the articles that we’re linking here that we can use to further our learning?

Drew: Yeah, some of them have been mentioned. We have 3 required readings for all staff at Restoring Justice and all board members or anyone who is going to have long term influence on our mission. One is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, it’s an incredible movie but the book goes on so much deeper and the spiritual component undertones, and some of his work with juveniles that you just don’t get from the movie. So definitely worth reading that entire book. The second one has been mentioned, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, and then the third one is a book called Rethinking Incarceration, by Dominique Gilliard, and it really is written to meant to be a follow up to those first two books, speaking about what the church can and/or should be or have been doing in the criminal justice space on attacking mass incarceration.

Kathryn: Great, thank you so much. I’ve been talking with Drew Wiley the Founder and CEO of Restoring Justice, on mass incarceration and how we can reform our criminal justice system to have a more ethical and humanized approach. Thank you, Drew, so much for your time.

Drew: Yeah, thank you.

Make sure you check out the books recommended by Drew and are linked above. Drew and the team at Restoring Justice have provided the following resources for further and deeper learning:

Prison Policy Initiative // Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020

Prison Policy Initiative // States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2018

Texas Monthly // How the Unchecked Power of Judges is Hurting Poor Texans

The Atlantic // American Slavery, Reinvented

The New York Times // Coronavirus Limits California’s Efforts to Fight Fires with Prison Labor

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