Standing Up Against Sexual Assault By the State

Update: VICTORY! The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan have confirmed that the Michigan Department of Corrections has abandoned the routine implementation of this degrading body cavity search.

Today, 34 civil rights, religious, and health organizations and experts joined together to condemn an extraordinarily degrading body search used on women prisoners. After every meeting with a family member, religious worker, or lawyer, and at other times, prisoners confined in Michigan's Women's Huron Valley prison are forced to remove all of their clothing and use their hands to spread open their vaginal lips as a guard peers into their vaginal cavities. This search — used routinely only in Michigan and in no other jurisdiction — has devastating emotional effects on women prisoners, the majority of whom are survivors of sexual or physical abuse.

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A striking fact about Michigan's spread-labia vaginal search is that it doesn't serve any practical purpose, in part because the procedure is piled on top of two standard strip search maneuvers that already permit officials to detect any items smuggled in body cavities. Despite being even more degrading than those methods, the spread-labia search doesn't add any measure of security. It's therefore not surprising that the search doesn't appear to yield any contraband. When we asked for records of contraband found during these searches, the Michigan Department of Corrections refused to turn any over, claiming that no log of recovered contraband is kept. In fact, subjecting women to such a humiliating search actually endangers security, because it traumatizes the women and risks increasing tensions between prisoners and staff.

But is it fair to characterize the spread-labia search as sexual assault by the state? Yes, for many reasons. Although the search doesn't serve any legitimate purpose, women are forced to submit through the threat — or the actuality — of force. If a woman resists taking off her clothing or opening her vagina, she can be physically subdued and searched, or punished with solitary confinement. In most cases, the threat of force is enough to coerce women to comply. It's important to note that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and courts, define sexual assault as a violation of the sexual integrity or dignity of the victim. It doesn't have to give sexual gratification to the perpetrator, or even involve touching. The point of sexual assault is domination and control, asserted by means of the victim's body. Decades ago, the eminent sociologist Erving Goffman described how body searches are used in prisons and similar institutions to humiliate and degrade inmates through what he called "forced interpersonal contact." By breaking down a person's sense of self, compulsory body searches make prisoners easier to control.

The similarities between the spread-labia search and sexual assault don't end there. The effects of degrading body searches on the women forced to undergo them are uncannily similar to the effects of rape. In studies, both rape survivors and prisoners subjected to invasive searches reported damaged self-esteem, a sense of helplessness, anger, and feelings of disgust toward their own bodies. Both groups experience repetitive phenomena like flashbacks and nightmares. And without proper care, both can respond to the intense pain with self-destructive coping behaviors like self-harm and drug abuse. The words of the women themselves show that they experience the spread-labia search as sexual assault.

A broad coalition of rights and religious groups has given Michigan's prison officials a clear choice: If officials are truly interested in rehabilitating prisoners and thereby reducing crime, they must stop sadistically undoing the hard work of rehabilitation through this patently abusive search. You can stand up against the spread-labia vaginal search by learning more about this extreme civil rights violation.

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Anonymous

This happened to me in Huntington Beach, CA. Is this not standard operating procedure for all jails/prisons?

Anonymous

Vagina lips? Come on...

Anonymous

Those 5 anal retentive stupid preme court justasses, need to be cavity searched with a cattle prod, wake up their cheesybrains.

Anonymous

I should think that one might have to reframe the way one perceives the procedure. It is necessary as one way to ensure the safety of prison staff and inmates as well. A latent corollary of the search is to emphasize a power differential.

Unfortunately, inmates have diminished rights, or no rights in certain areas.

Anonymous

It's Just Humiliation, Nothing Else, There Not Animal's, Not a Toy for U to Play With.Perverded Gaurd's, Is this a New Run Prision, Take Over from Gov ? Racket Chance's of Getting Out Depend's how full they Are, Screwing the Tax Payer's for More an More, Just a Scam, Torcher Will Soon be Back.

Valerie VH

After participating in the email action, I got this prompt response from Sandy Simon with the DOC.

"I am pleased to inform you that this practice ended on December 16, 2011.
Thank you!"

Why does the department of corrections think the search is ended, while 34 groups campaign against it?

Valerie VH

Sandy Simon of the Michigan Department of Corrections sent me this very prompt response to the email I sent through the ACLU’s website.

“I am pleased to inform you that this practice ended on December 16, 2011. Thank you!”

Why does the DOC think the practice has ended, when “34 civil rights, religious, and health organizations and experts joined together to condemn” it?

Worley Dervish

Received this e-mail response from

Simon, Sandy C. (MDOC) SimonS4@michigan.gov

"I am pleased to inform you that this practice was ended on December 16, 2011.

Thank you!"

Can this be verified?

Anonymous

The MDOC policy on searches, PD-04.04.110, defines a strip search at paragraph (G)(3) as, "Visual inspection of all body surfaces of a person who has been required to remove all or most of his/her clothing and jewelry for purposes of the search. This includes visual inspection of the mouth, ears, and nasal cavities. Unless determined by the Warden to be unnecessary for an assignment within the security perimeter which requires a strip search (e.g., Michigan State Industries), it also includes visual inspection of the entrance to the rectal cavity; in such cases, the person will be required to bend and spread his/her buttocks to allow inspection. A visual inspection of the vagina shall be conducted as part of a strip search only with approval of the Warden or designee when there is reasonable suspicion that the prisoner is concealing contraband in her vagina; in such cases, the prisoner shall be required to spread the lips of her vagina to allow inspection. All clothing and articles which are removed also shall be inspected for contraband."

The story leaves the impression that vaginal visual inspections are routing and done on an arbitrary basis. Drugs are commonly introduced into facilities through visits, by a prisoner inserting a small package or balloon into a body cavity. As the policy clearly indicates there must be reasonable suspicion to conduct such, a term which I am sure is familiar, and such must be authorized by the Warden or designee. This policy is easily accessed on the MDOC website. I am a committed ACLU supporter and have extensive knowledge of MDOC policies and procedures in this area, but in this case I do not agree with the ACLU's position.

Anonymous

If you don't like it, STAY OUT OF PRISON! Dumb bitches.

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