May 15, 2014 By 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 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 filming.
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 prisoners.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.”