ACLU Called Searches "Degrading" And "Humiliating"
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DENVER – Officials at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility (DWCF) today implemented a new strip search policy that no longer allows correctional officers to engage in degrading body cavity searches in which prisoners had been forced to open their labia and, according to some reports, even to pull back the skin of their clitorises.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Colorado last month sent a letter to Ari Zavaras, head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, charging that the searches – which occurred even when guards had no particular reason to suspect concealment of contraband – raised grave concerns under the Fourth and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In its Aug. 25 letter, the ACLU said that while courts have upheld visual inspections of prisoners, forcing women to hold open their labia for inspection on a routine basis is gratuitous and constitutes unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain and humiliation.
"Officials at DWCF deserve credit for eliminating these degrading searches," said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director for the ACLU of Colorado. "The U.S. Constitution protects prisoners from having to endure pointless and humiliating treatment."
Experts on mental health care in prisons have estimated that as many as 80 percent of women who are in jail or prison have been the victims of domestic violence and physical abuse prior to their conviction, a reality that compounds the infliction of pain caused by the needless body cavity searches. The ACLU said in its letter that courts have found that the previous sexual abuse suffered by many female prisoners increases the trauma caused by invasive strip searches and heightens the constitutional violation. Indeed, the ACLU received letters from prisoners at DWCF who complained that being forced to comply with invasive search procedures – which in some cases occurred under the threat of being doused with pepper spray – exacerbated prior sexual trauma.
The ACLU also asserted in its letter that DWCF's procedures could jeopardize the safety of communities across the state of Colorado by undermining the rehabilitation of prisoners and compromising the Colorado Department of Corrections' stated goal of "assist[ing] offenders' successful re-entry into society" and "reduc[ing] the likelihood of future victims." The ACLU's letter charged that prisoners had refused visits from friends and family in order to avoid post-visit searches.
"These searches had a devastating impact on prisoners and threatened to undermine rehabilitation," said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. "We will remain vigilant and in contact with DWCF prisoners to ensure that the new procedures are implemented properly."
A copy of the ACLU's Aug. 25 letter is available online at: www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/letter-colorado-department-corrections-challenging-degrading-body-cavity-search-pol