Brothels survive on weak R.I. law

Discussion in 'Boston / Massachusetts & Rhode Island' started by Smoke&Mirrors, Aug 19, 2006.

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    Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline says his staff is working on stronger legislation aimed at closing what are described as poorly disguised massage parlors.

    August 19, 2006

    ****nal Staff Writer

    PROVIDENCE -- Most of the massage parlors in Rhode Island are operating in office buildings in the capital city -- some just blocks from City Hall -- but the mayor says the state's weak law on prostitution hampers the police in shutting down the brothels.

    Mayor David N. Cicilline said his staff is now working on legislation that will target the prostitution and human-trafficking believed to be going on behind the spas' closed doors.

    Meanwhile, the police and city officials must use code violations and other regulations to put pressure on the ill-disguised brothels.

    A quirk in current state law makes prostitution legal in Rhode Island, as long as it takes place indoors. Only the streetwalkers, their pimps, and the customers flagging them down from vehicles can be charged.

    "There's no question the existing inadequacies of the present law make it more difficult," Cicilline said. "This is a Rhode Island problem, because this is a Rhode Island state statute. If we don't fix that, I think it'll get more serious."

    These massage parlors have settled in obscure office buildings and strip malls across Rhode Island -- in Central Falls, Cranston, Middletown, Pawtucket, and Providence.

    Most are clustered in Providence, including two that are just a few blocks away from City Hall.

    Attempts to change the law and crackdown on brothels and escort services have consistently failed.

    Last year, legislators rejected an attempt to strengthen the prostitution law, saying it would punish women who may be working as prostitutes against their will.

    At the last session of the General Assembly, two bills that targeted human-trafficking also died.

    Cicilline said his office then turned to working with local and national organizations that combat sexual abuse and human-trafficking to write effective legislation for the coming General Assembly session. Rep. Joanne Giannini, D-Providence, sponsored previous anti-trafficking legislation and has expressed interest in sponsoring this bill, Cicilline said.

    He said the new legislation will focus on three issues: the prostitution, those who profit from the brothels, and those who participate in human-trafficking.

    An alleged brothel manager of a Providence massage parlor was recently arrested along with 30 other people in a massive federal investigation into human-trafficking. The investigation, which originated in New York, exposed a network of brothel madams, middlemen, drivers, and prostitutes working in massage parlors and spas throughout the Northeast states. Two brothels in Providence were mentioned in the federal affidavit -- both were lucrative enough for the sex workers to allegedly bring in $18,000 to $20,000 a month.

    Cicilline said that the police and city officials have been trying other methods to put pressure on the brothels.

    They stopped one alleged massage parlor from moving into the Fox Point neighborhood last year. Superior Court Judge Daniel Procaccini upheld the city's right to refuse an occupancy permit to the Fox Point Steam Club when the owner wasn't forthcoming with the city about what he was selling. The business was advertising in the adult classified section of the Providence Phoenix.

    Last year, the city sent threatening letters to the landlords of the buildings where the brothels operate. City code enforcement officials have investigated and found health, fire, and building violations. The police have raided the massage parlors and arrested the women on immigration charges.

    But this isn't enough. Just two closed over the last year, and those closures came over city code violations and not crimes. A third, Down Town Spa (also called Down Town Acupressure), closed recently during a federal human-trafficking investigation, but a handwritten sign on the outside door instructs customers to "Please come back!"

    "I still believe a very important part in closing these establishments in Rhode Island will come at the state level," Cicilline said.