Suffolk County jail in Riverhead is being lit up in blue throughout January for National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a campaign to raise awareness to the scourge of modern-day slavery.
Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr., whose department is tasked with the care and custody of people held pending criminal trial and those serving sentences for misdemeanor convictions, said he hopes lighting up the center of the building’s façade will help educate the public to recognize the signs of human trafficking.
“Human trafficking is happening in Suffolk County and in communities across the country,” said Toulon. “Most often these victims are women who are vulnerable due to a substance abuse issue and who may have had several traumatic experiences throughout their lives. It’s not uncommon for youth in the foster care system to fall victim to traffickers, but men and women from all backgrounds can become victims.”
Human trafficking is defined as sexual exploitation or labor acts induced by force, fraud or coercion, such as vulnerable undocumented immigrants intimidated into prostitution under threat of deportation. Numerous sex trafficking cases have made headlines in Suffolk in recent years.
Toulon launched the Sheriff’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative Unit in 2018, billed as the first of its kind in the country operating from inside a correctional facility, which aims to ensure that all victims of human trafficking who pass through the jail are identified and have access to the services they need to recover.
Since its inception, the unit has conducted more than 2,700 interviews, identified 239 human trafficking victims and revealed 148 perpetrators, according to the sheriff’s office. Such cases are jointly investigated by local, New York State and federal agencies working with the Suffolk County Anti-Trafficking Initiative.
Between 2008 and 2020, local authorities made 31 human trafficking arrests in Suffolk, the majority being sex trafficking cases, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.