Male Guards Strip Searching Women in Jail

(originally posted on Jean Trounstine's website)

Not that this surprises me. I worked at Framingham Women's Prison in Massachusetts in the 1990's when male guards rounded up women in the middle of the night for an "alleged" strip-search. They were sued. The women won. But the extent of the case at the jail in Chicopee where Sheriff Michael J. Ashe is reputed to be innovative, concerned and on the side of the women is frankly appalling.

The story broke on May 23rd on a local TV station in the western part of the state,WWLP, and was picked up the next day by the The Springfield Republican but the suit was originally filed in September 2011. At that time, Debra Baggett, a former prisoner at the Western Mass Regional Women’s Correctional Center sued on behalf of 178 women. It took a while — what's new? — but U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor has finally ruled that the class action suit can go forward. 178 women, strip-searched at different times, were allegedly videotaped by a male officer during those body-cavity searches. These were women segregated from the population for different reasons such as suicide watch; the jail claimed that strip searches were necessary for safety per attorney David Milton, interviewed on the Bill Newman radio show, also out of Western Mass.

WWLP reported that Boston Civil Rights attorney Howard Friedman, colleague of Milton, said these travesties occurred between 2008 and 2010, and that "men held the camera for 71% of the videotaped strip searches." Attorney Friedman also asserted, says WWLP that after prison officials became aware of the lawsuit in 2012, the percentage of those videotaped dropped to 2% by 2012.

Where was Sheriff Ashe, the innovator during all this? One can only speculate.

These cases are so clearly an abuse of power that it is almost not worth mentioning the obvious. And yet a woman stripped naked in front of male officers should only occur in cases of emergency. Female officers should always be conducting searches. And it shouldn't take a lawsuit to change an abusive policy. Supposedly the jail now only videotapes when they feel there is a direct threat, i.e. dangerousness, but I bet they aren't letting men hold the camera now. Plus, why on earth we need videotaping of people who might commit suicide when they are being strip searched — for contraband supposedly –is beyond beyond.

In 2011, The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cross-gender strip searches of prisoners were unconstitutional, reported in the ABA Journal of the American Bar Association. That was when a male sued because a female officer searched him.

A court is expected to rule on whether the policy that was allegedly in place at the women's correctional center was or was not constitutional. That's to happen sometime in early 2014. Let's hope the next judge does the right thing.

and Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project appeared on TRGGR Radio to talk about human rights violations in Massachusetts' penal system, including the strip searching of women in the jail. You can hear it here.