Kathryn Griffin is late to the weekly meeting at a women’s crisis center near downtown Houston, but she enters the room like a rock star, drawing applause from the dozen or so people in the room. Griffin knows a thing or two about putting on a show. She grew up in a musical family, has made national television appearances and toured with the R&B musician Rick James as a young woman. Now her audience is a group of people recovering from drug addiction, mostly women, who struggled with poverty and sold sex at some point in their lives before getting in trouble with the law and meeting Griffin in jail or court.
Griffin explains that she is late because she was meeting with new defendants at Houston’s specialty court for young adults charged with prostitution for the first time. Griffin says the defendants were busted working at strip clubs or after being “called up” on Backpage.com, a classified website commonly used by sex workers to connect with clients. The aggressive vice squads on Houston’s police force also use websites like Backpage to set up sting operations, which in turn connect Griffin with some of her clients.
Griffin says the women in the prostitution court had bad attitudes. One denied being a sex worker and claimed she never thought she would end up in handcuffs. If she wasn’t a prostitute, Griffin asks, then why was she in “ho court?” The group erupts in laughter. “Stank attitudes get you locked up and thrown away,” Griffin warns.
The meeting is a weekly event held by Griffin’s organization, We’ve Been There Done That, which acts as an extension of similar programs for people convicted of prostitution at Houston’s local jail and two state prison facilities. Judges began sentencing women to Griffin’s program at the Houston jail in 2013, and Griffin uses the outside organization to support them after they are released. Judges also order some participants, especially minors, to attend the group’s meetings as part of diversion programs, but others come on their own after attending Griffin’s meetings in jail.
Kathryn Griffin is a certified drug abuse prevention specialist, but she has no formal training in counseling sex workers.
The meeting resembles a 12-step program for substance abuse, only with the energy of a small gospel revival. One by one, each participant states their name and the vices that sent them on a downward spiral – crack cocaine, methamphetamine, abusive boyfriends and even shoplifting makeup. Some are months into their recovery; others have been clean for years. Griffin only sits down for moments at a time, preferring to be on her feet and bouncing from one participant to another, asking for updates on their lives and personal progress. The conversation is crude but honest, with phrases like “swallowing DNA” causing laughter across the room. “We can laugh now because we are safe,” Griffin says.
Griffin’s father, Ed Townsend, co-wrote the hit song “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye. As a young woman, Griffin joined Rick James’ “Cold Blooded” tour in 1983. She developed an expensive drug habit that left her broke on the streets of Los Angeles, where she made money as a sex worker to get her fix. She says that she should know about drug rehab programs. After all, she attended 21 of them.