Erika D. Smith

Putting a stop to prostitution, one hotel at a time

Amit Prakash, director of asset management for Phoenix Hospitality Group, has big plans to reduce human trafficking in Sacramento-area hotels and motels. He and his brother, Anish, run the Red Roof Inn at Mack Road and Stockton Boulevard.
Amit Prakash, director of asset management for Phoenix Hospitality Group, has big plans to reduce human trafficking in Sacramento-area hotels and motels. He and his brother, Anish, run the Red Roof Inn at Mack Road and Stockton Boulevard.

Amit Prakash never expected to find a higher calling in life working the front desk of Red Roof Inn with a disturbing view of prostitutes walking up and down Stockton Boulevard.

But I guess that’s how those higher-calling things work.

At 35 years old, Prakash is a second-generation hotelier and entrepreneur. He was raised in south Sacramento but spent years in Seattle, amassing a portfolio of nearly two dozen properties with his brother, Anish. Fortunately, they sold it all right before the recession. So, while others lost their shirts, the brothers moved back to Sacramento with money to invest.

They purchased residential properties, took on a trucking company and, of all things, snatched up a Motel 6 on Stockton Boulevard and Mack Road.

They had no idea what they were getting themselves into. The prostitution. The johns. The pimps. The drug dealing. The police calls.

“We didn’t anticipate just how big of a problem human trafficking really was,” Amit Prakash said, looking out the window of his motel, now renovated and rebranded as a Red Roof Inn. “When we opened up, quite frankly, we were really lost. We didn’t know how to tackle these issues.”

It’s not surprising.

For decades, human trafficking has existed in a shadowy world. That has started to change, though, as authorities at all levels of government have taken up the issue, shining a light on it, even as solutions to stop people from being bought and sold and forced into work as prostitutes have remained largely elusive.

Globally, human trafficking is a $32 billion-a-year industry. As criminal enterprises go, it’s growing faster than the drug trade.

California, with its thriving tourism business and centers of corporate wealth, consistently ranks among the top states in the country for human trafficking. Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco wrestle with it the most, but Sacramento isn’t far behind. And without a more unified effort, it’s likely to get worse here as the economy grows to new heights.

Those in the hospitality industry encounter it all the time – particularly, at motels in not-so-great neighborhoods. Like at the Prakash brothers’ Red Roof Inn.

Prakash shakes his head as he talks about the scantily clad women who walk up and down Stockton Boulevard. The ones who try to book rooms with cash and have male guests join them on the sly.

Some women start in the sex trade as teenagers, forced into prostitution by their fathers, brothers or uncles. Others are coerced by their boyfriends. That’s what Prakash said happened to one of his employees.

“We slowly got her out of that environment. We told her you don’t have to be scared,” he said. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that one of my employees would go through something like that.”

But, as the Prakash brothers quickly learned, putting a stop to prostitution at a hotel isn’t as simple as just banning people.

“It’s not as simple as to say, ‘I’m not going to rent you a room because you’re dressed a certain way,’ ” he said. “Because you’re profiling. You’re discriminating.”

That was the breaking point. That’s where his higher calling kicked in.

Prakash says he is determined to find a way stop prostitution – not just at a single hotel, but at hotels and motels throughout the Sacramento region. He wants to make the city an example of how a hospitality industry – with the help of law enforcement – can band together and fight.

So far, so good.

He has been working with the operators of several local motels and hotels, as well as the Sacramento City Council and Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office. He brought a group of them together for a meeting in April. He calls it a starting point.

“The goal isn’t to go after the girls,” he said. “The goal is to go after the guys. The johns. We want to let them know we’re watching you.”

Prakash points to what Motel 6 has done. Granted, it was under the threat of a lawsuit from Sacramento County and Rancho Cordova, but the chain agreed to hire armed security guards and ban visitors between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. Prior to the deal, reached in March, the chain’s six motels had become crime magnets, with law enforcement responding to more than 5,300 calls for service in just over two years.

He also uses his own Red Roof Inn as an example. Police calls have dropped dramatically. Ideally, he wants other hotels and motels to replicate it.

Security guards are a must. So are cameras, preferably ones that cover every inch of a property, so workers can see if unregistered guests enter rooms. Even more important and far less common, Praskash has found, are written policies that spell out rules for guests and the penalties for breaking them.

Prakash also is a big advocate of Do Not Rent lists, which, as the name suggests, are like Do Not Call lists.

You might be surprised – as I was – to learn that many motel and hotel chains maintain such lists. The problem is these lists are independent of one another, so someone who is banned from, say, Motel 6 for dealing drugs or committing credit card fraud might not be banned from, say, Red Roof Inn.

Instead, Prakash is pushing for a universal Do Not Rent list. So far, in addition to his hotel, a dozen others across the Sacramento region, from Elk Grove to Rancho Cordova, are using it. He wants more to join and expects that they will.

“The goal is to stop kicking our can down the street to the next hotel,” he said.

But what about the potential for punishing someone forever for one mistake – even if it was criminal? Aren’t we all about second chances theses days in California?

“We’re not targeting people for petty little things,” Prakash assured me. “We’re targeting people who commit legitimate fraud or crime.”

I hope he’s right.

Whether his plan will work and actually make a dent in the far more elusive crime of human trafficking remains to be seen. But any attempt to make it harder for more young girls to be victimized is a good thing for Sacramento.

That’s a higher calling indeed.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith