Western Massachusetts. Class Action Suit Progresses Against Sheriff Ashe for Strip Searching and Videotaping of Women Prisoners

Originally appeared in The Valley Advocate. Scroll down to near end of page for story. (Being stripped searched by male guards were women going to segregation including women on suicide watch and women who have mental illness.)

Last week the federal appeals court in Boston refused to overturn the opinion of a lower court that a case involving strip searches at the women’s correctional center in Chicopee could go forward as a class action suit. The plaintiffs claim that male officers at the jail videotaped women prisoners in the nude as they were being searched, that jail policy allowed them to do so, and that being videoed by men as they exposed intimate parts of the body was degrading for the women (“A Compromised Position,” February 16, 2012; “Prison Strip-Search Lawsuit Proceeds as Class Action,” June 4, 2013).

The defendants—Hampden County sheriff Michael Ashe and Patricia Murphy, who is in charge of the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center—had asked the appeals court to review a decision by Judge Michael Ponsor in U.S. District Court in Springfield that around 178 women, including the two named plaintiffs, Debra Baggett and April Marlboro, could be certified as a class to bring the suit. The appeals court has declined to review Ponsor’s decision of May 23.

According to the original complaint, “With four or more officers present, the inmate must take off all her clothes and perform a series of actions: she must lean forward, lift her arms, lift her breasts and, if large, her stomach, turn around, bend over, spread her buttocks with her hands...An officer with a video camera stands a few feet away and records the entire strip search.”

From spring, 2008 until fall, 2010 the videotapings were done by male officers in 71 percent of cases, the plaintiff’s attorney says. Since 2011, when complaints surfaced, only 2 percent of the videotapings have been done by men. Discovery in the case is expected to continue until the end of the year.• —SK

Thanks to Lois at The Real Cost of Prisons Project for bringing this to my attention.