Sep 19 2011

Jail sued for allowing men to video-record women being strip searched

Dr. Q

A recently filed class action lawsuit alleges that male corrections officers routinely video-record female inmates at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center while they are strip searched. According to the lawsuit (.pdf format):

Women at the WCC who cannot remain in the general prison population for mental health or disciplinary reasons are taken to the Segregation Unit. With four or more officers present, the inmate must take off all her clothes and perform a series of actions: she must lean forward, lift her arms, 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. An officer with a video camera stands a few feet away and records the entire strip search. This officer is almost always male, in violation of the federal Constitution, Massachusetts law, national correctional standards, and the basic human dignity that these authorities are supposed to protect.

The suit names Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe and Assistant Superintendent Patricia Murphy as the defendants. It notes that the two “have created and maintained written strip search policies that permit male guards to record naked women. They know of and condone the fact that in practice, the guard recording the women is almost always male.”

The suit was filed by Boston-based civil rights attorneys Howard Friedman and David Milton on behalf of two former inmates who were strip searched at the jail, but suggests that “hundreds of women have been subjected to this humiliating and unconstitutional practice.”

Debra Baggett, one victim named in the suit, said that she sometimes asked to be taken into protective custody when a fight caused her to be too scared to comfortably stay with the jail’s general population. When she was taken into protective custody, she was strip searched while being video-recorded by a man.

April Marlborough, the second victim named in the suit, was taken to the jail’s Segregation Unit for “disciplinary reasons.” Like Baggett, she was strip searched and video-recorded by male jail staff. Marlborough, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, felt “violated and dehumanized by this experience,” according to the suit.

Edward J. McDonough Jr., the lawyer representing the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, confirmed that the department allows male employees to video-record strip searches of women, but claimed that it is only done during emergencies. Video-recording is “the best documentation as to the conduct of the inmate and the conduct of the officers. You have to strike a fair balance between the need for safety and security and the need to protect inmate privacy and dignity,” he told The Boston Globe. “When there is an emergency or exigent circumstance, you can’t always guarantee you’ll have a 100 percent female staff… You may have to have a male officer hold the camera.”

McDonough is correct about video cameras being a useful way to prevent abuse, but his claim that there are any circumstances whatsoever under which it would be necessary for a man to operate the camera is ludicrous. The sheriff’s department could easily buy a few tripods for their hand-held cameras. A quick search on brought up a massive number of tripods many of which are priced under $10. The department could also install wall-mounted surveillance cameras in rooms where strip searches are conducted.

There’s no excuse for the sheriff’s department allowing men to video-record these strip searches. Hopefully this lawsuit will force the department to change its policies.

If anyone you know was strip searched under this policy at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center, let them know about this lawsuit. Since it’s a class action lawsuit, they may be able to collect damages from the sheriff’s department if the lawsuit is successful.