[Pnews] On the Way to Solitary, Women in Massachusetts Jail Get Strip Searched and Videotaped

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu May 15 10:30:03 EDT 2014

  On the Way to Solitary, Women in Massachusetts Jail Get Strip Searched
  and Videotaped

May 15, 2014 By Victoria Law <http://solitarywatch.com/author/victoria-law/>

"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 
<http://civil-rights-law.tumblr.com/post/10246528243>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.

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 

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.

This doesn't mean that videotaping strip searches has never happened. In 
the 1990s, New York State's Albion Correctional Facility came under fire 
for allowing male guards to watch women being strip searched. Although 
female guards were the ones holding the cameras, male guards were 
allowed to watch the strip searches and the videotaping through a 
partially open door. Albion began the practice of videotaping strip 
searches in January 1994, claiming that the practice would prevent 
abuse. Women at Albion, however, said that the videotaping --- and 
allowing male guards to watch the searches --- were part of a system 
wide pattern of sexual abuse within the prison, including sexual assault 
and impregnation by staff.

After a fight, Leonides Cruz was brought to Albion's Special Housing 
Unit (where individuals are held in solitary confinement, or 
segregation). Cruz described her experience to the /New York Daily News/ 

    When I got there, [officers] brought in a video camera and told me
    to strip completely.It was this really unsanitary room like a
    closet. There were two female officers taping, but the door was
    opened a crack and two male officers were looking in. They had me
    first touch my body and then my mouth. This is not the way it's
    supposed to be you have to touch the mouth first, because you could
    get an infection if you touch certain parts of your body and then
    put your fingers in your mouth. I had to bend over . . . in front of
    the camera it was so embarrassing and humiliating. I wouldn't fight
    it because I knew that things would get worse for me. When they
    finished video-taping and I came out they were all laughing."

At Albion, videotaping and other forms of sexual humiliation occurred 
not just to women sent to solitary. Another woman described 
being strip searched, videotaped and humiliated upon her arrival at Albion:

    The sergeant escorted me in there and I saw they had turned on the
    cameras. In the room there were two female officers standing in this
    dirty room, with a filthy floor . . . Two male officers were
    standing outside, and I could see them looking in. They started
    filming and asked me to strip one piece of clothing at a time, like
    a striptease. This is a medium-security facility, I couldn't believe
    what was happening to me. I told them that they weren't supposed to
    do this since I was stripped in the other facility and handed off.
    They're only supposed to do this if there is probable cause. After
    my clothes came off, they asked me to lift my breasts. Then they
    told me to turn around . . . I was so humiliated that I started to
    cry, and the officer laughed and said, "Tears don't cut it here
    you're in a real jail now."

In August 1994, Prisoners' Legal Services threatened a lawsuit against 
New York State's Department of Corrections and Community Supervision 
(DOCCS). In response, DOCCS offered a settlement of $1000 per incident 
to each woman. Albion also stopped the practice of videotaping strip 
searches. Publicity about the videotaping and the prison's systemic 
sexual abuse by staff members also prompted State Senator Catherine 
Abate to draft legislation making it a crime for staff to have sex with 
The bill passed and was signed into law in July 1996.

However neither the settlement nor subsequent legislation stopped the 
pervasive sexual abuse and assault in New York State prisons. In January 
2003, nearly a decade after the settlement, the Prisoners' Right Project 
of the Legal Aid Society of New York and a private law firm filed 
/Amador v. Andrews/ 
/a class action lawsuit on behalf of women imprisoned in New York State 
who had been sexually abused by staff. The suit charged that prison 
staff subjected women to numerous instances of sexual abuse, ranging 
from inappropriate touching to rape. (Four years later, in December 
2007, the court dismissed the claims on the grounds that most of the 
women had failed to exhaust the prison grievance system. This despite 
the fact that they had complained to the prison system's Inspector 
General, which is where grievances about sexual abuse are referred.)

Strip searches are one way that jail and prison staff can sexually 
humiliate and abuse the people that they guard. But because strip 
searches are everyday practice in many facilities, they are not covered 
by legislation designed to prevent sexual abuse, such as Albion's bill 
or the Prison Rape Elimination Act. According to MassLive.com 
"lawyers from both sides [of /Baggett v. Ashe/] noted the lack of case 
law on whether cross-gender videotaping of strip searches runs afoul of 
Constitutional rights"--meaning the case could be precedent-setting.

As they await the judge's decision, David Milton, the attorney 
representing Baggett and the 177 other women, noted that the lawsuit has 
already had some effect: "As a result of this lawsuit, the WCC has 
virtually eliminated the practice of male guards videotaping strip 
searches. Now it happens less than one percent of the time. If we're 
successful, we hope that the success of this lawsuit will send a message 
that women prisoners retain a core of human dignity and privacy that 
cannot be violated."

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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