At the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center, inmates who are transferred to a segregated unit are strip searched during the transfer. As part of this strip search, an inmate is required to “run her fingers through her hair, remove dentures if she wore them, raise both arms, lift her breasts, lift her stomach for visual inspection if she had a large mid-section, and remove any tampon or pad if she were menstruating. She was then required to turn around, bend over, spread her buttocks, and cough.”
Throughout the transfer, including the strip search, a corrections officer would videotape the entire process. Since mid-September of 2008, a male guard was assigned the task of videotaping these strip searches on 274 different occasions. Moreover, although prison policy stated that male officers should only record the inmate “from the neck up” while the strip searches are going on, a federal court determined that 68 percent of the videos show “some or all of the women’s genitals, buttocks, or breasts.”
The segregated unit, where these inmates would wind up after they were strip searched, is a facility for inmates who “presented as a suicide risk, committed certain disciplinary infractions, or needed to be in protective custody.”
On Tuesday, a federal trial court in Massachusetts held that it is “plainly unconstitutional to require a female inmate to expose herself, particularly to the extreme degree required during a strip search, in the presence of a male officer.” Even assuming that “the male officer doing the videotaping was able somehow to avert his eyes while using the camera,” something the defendants in this lawsuit claim that the officers actually did do, Judge Michael Ponsor explained that the search still violates the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. “The fact that the male officer, while operating the video camera, may be turned to one side or have his back turned will do little, for most female inmates, to diminish the sense of embarrassment, humiliation, and vulnerability that she must inevitably feel.”
The Supreme Court is very permissive of strip searches in jails. In 2012, a 5-4 Court held that newly arrested suspects may be strip searched before they are placed with the jail’s general population. Since this decision, however, some lower courts have started to place limits on particularly egregious or demeaning searches. On Monday, for example, a federal appeal court held that corrections officers violated the Constitution when they subjected an inmate to an anal probe without medical assistance and without first obtaining a warrant.