Female Inmates Were Forced to Expose Their Genitals in a ‘Training Exercise.’ It Was Legal, Court Rules.

By Meagan Flynn, Washington Post

Women incarcerated at the Lincoln Correctional Center in 2011 have since been transferred to Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill. (Jean Ann Miller/The Lincoln Courier/AP)

Women incarcerated at the Lincoln Correctional Center in 2011 have since been transferred to Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill. (Jean Ann Miller/The Lincoln Courier/AP)

Early one March morning inside an Illinois prison, a tactical unit armed with batons and shields stormed two women’s housing units to round up about 200 handcuffed inmates and march them to a gymnasium.

Once in the gym, they stood facing the wall for more than an hour, still unsure why, until the guards started taking groups of four to 10 into the adjoining bathroom and beauty shop. There, they were ordered to strip. Standing shoulder to shoulder, women on their periods were asked to remove their tampons and pads. Some stood bleeding on themselves or the floor. They were ordered to lift their breasts and hair, to cough and squat, and then, finally, to bend over and spread open their vaginal and anal cavities.

The bathroom had no doors and was visible from the gym, and the beauty shop’s door was open too, allowing male guards to see the naked prisoners whenever they walked past, or as they deliberately stared at them from afar, according to a federal complaint.

At the time, the women didn’t know why the Lincoln Correctional Center guards had ordered the humiliating mass strip search, but discovered the reason later: It was just a training exercise for incoming cadets.

Now, after eight years of litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit has ruled in a divided 2-1 opinion that the entire 2011 episode was legal, citing binding precedent within the circuit. Because the guards didn’t physically probe the women while conducting the visual body cavity searches, the judges ruled, the women’s Fourth Amendment rights to privacy weren’t violated.

The dissenting judge, U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee, an Obama appointee, said the case illustrated a need for high courts to re-examine prisoners’ bodily privacy rights, especially when they are forced to reveal not only their naked bodies, but the inside of them — and the purpose is not for security.

“Surely a ‘training’ justification need not be treated with the same level of deference as a search conducted due to concerns over smuggled weapons or other contraband?” he questioned. “It is rationales like this — that fall somewhere between legitimate security concerns and unjustified harassment — that suggest the continuing need for the Fourth Amendment even in prisons.”

Circuit judges Frank H. Easterbrook and Daniel A. Manion, both Reagan appointees, ruled in the majority.

The disagreement among federal courts about the extent of prisoners’ privacy rights during invasive searches couldn’t be more clear this week. On Tuesday, the same day that the 7th Circuit ruled the mass strip search in Illinois did not violate the inmates’ rights, Los Angeles County settled a 2010 lawsuit for $53 million after a judge found that the county jail’s mass visual body cavity searches did violate female inmates’ Fourth Amendment rights. It was Los Angeles County’s largest settlement in history, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In that case, on a regular basis, entire busloads of women returning to the Century Regional Detention Facility from court were herded into a cold bus garage, lined up along the wall and ordered by female guards to strip. As in the Illinois case, they had to remove their tampons or pads in front of others. They were ordered to bend over, reach behind and “spread open your vagina lips” while coughing, according to the judge’s ruling. All the while, some of the guards made degrading comments at the women, the lawsuit alleged. Others laughed.

One woman told the Times this week that she “felt like I was being treated like an animal. Worse than an animal.”

"They wanted to make us feel powerless,” Jessica Almaraz, 34, told the newspaper. “Whatever they said went, even if it meant making you feel like you’re not human.”

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Olivia McDowellComment