Massachusetts Prisoners Take Sheriffs To Court Over “Degrading” Strip-Searches

George Lavender

Prisoners from the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center (WCC) are challenging the jail's strip-search practices in court

Women at a Massachusetts jail have been subject to degrading and unconstitutional” searches by male correctional officers according to a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of hundreds of prisoners. As Victoria Law at Solitary Watch reports, the searches were carried out on prisoners being transferred to solitary confinement. 

When women are moved to the Segregation Unit for mental health or disciplinary reasons, they are strip searched. With four or more officers present, the inmate must: take off all her clothes, lift her breasts and, if large, her stomach, turn around, bend over, spread her buttocks with her hands and cough, and stand up and face the wall. If the woman is menstruating, she must remove her tampon or pad and hand it to a guard. An officer with a video camera stands a few feet away and records the entire strip search. This officer is almost always male.”

This is a description of what has happened when women are taken to solitary confinement at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center (WCC) in Chicopee. The procedure has been followed not only for women being sent to isolation for violating jail rules but also women who are being placed on suicide watch or who have requested protective custody. Since September 15, 2008, on approximately 274 occasions, a male corrections officer recorded the strip search with a handheld video camera; 178 women were affected by this practice.

A report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released last month examined the use of solitary confinement in women’s prisons. The ACLU report, Worse Than Second Class: Solitary Confinement of Women in the United States” found that sexual assault in prison remains a serious problem in spite of increased awareness of the issue.”

Despite the popular misconception that solitary confinement is used to house only the worst of the worst,” this is not true. In fact, solitary is often used on the most vulnerable: pregnant women, individuals with mental illness, transgender women, and — in a particularly disturbing trend — victims of sexual assault by prison guards.

Allegations like those in Massachusetts are not new. Amnesty International documented similar searches, also by male guards, more than a decade ago. In its report Not Part of My Sentence” the human rights organization described what it called violations of the internationally guaranteed human rights of women incarcerated in prisons and jails.” 

The violations include rape and other forms of sexual abuse; the cruel, inhuman and degrading use of restraints on incarcerated women who are pregnant or seriously ill; inadequate access to treatment for physical and mental health needs; and confinement in isolation for prolonged periods in conditions of reduced sensory stimulation.

As Solitary Watch reports, the court case in Massachusetts was filed by two former prisoners against Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe, Jr. and Assistant Superintendent Patricia Murphy.

In 2009, Debra Baggett wrote a letter to the law office of Howard Friedman about this practice. The office, which has been involved in a number of cases involving prisoner rights and strip searches, investigated Baggett’s complaints. We found that the jail had a written policy allowing male guards to videotape the strip searches,” stated David Milton, the attorney representing the women. When the jail refused to change its policy, Baggett and a group of other women held at the jail filed suit.

On April 22, 2014, a federal judge heard arguments in Baggett v. Ashe, the class-action lawsuit which now represents 178 women. At the center of the suit is the jail’s practice of allowing male guards to videotape the strip searches of women being moved to the jail’s segregation unit. The jail has argued that male officers do not watch the searches while filming.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards which went into full-effect last year, are supposed to provide protections for prisoners during strip searches, as the PREA Information Center explains

At its most basic, the standard has three parts. First, it prohibits all cross-gender strip and body cavity searches except in exigent circumstances and disallows the use of cross-gender pat searches for female inmates in jails, prisons, and community confinement facilities (the juvenile facility standards prohibit cross-gender pat searches of both male and female residents). Second, it provides for a knock and announce” practice when an opposite gender staff member enters a housing unit and, more generally, provides that facilities are to implement policies and procedures that enable inmates to shower, perform bodily functions, and change clothing without nonmedical staff of the opposite gender viewing their breasts, buttocks, or genitalia, except in exigent circumstances or when such viewing is incidental to routine cell checks. Third, the standard also provides protection from intrusive searches for the purpose of determining gender for transgender or intersex inmates.

Despite this, sexual violence continues to be a serious issue in prisons across the US, as Victoria Law reports 

Jails and prisons — and especially women’s facilities — are notorious as sites of sexual violence and abuse. Women make up just 7 percent of state and federal prisoners in the United States, but they are the victims in 33 percent of all sexual assaults by prison staff. In addition to these physical assaults, women in jails and prisons have reported incidents of sexual humiliation by male officers, from making frequent sexual comments to watching them as they shower.

Even against this backdrop of routine sexual abuse, the practice at Western Massachusetts Regional WCC appears extreme. Attorney David Milton stated that the practice is very rare. No one knows of anywhere else that does this. It’s so intuitively wrong, it hasn’t come up,” he said. Advocates and formerly incarcerated women elsewhere have confirmed that they have not heard or experienced the practice in their states. Continue reading…

George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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