ACLU Calls On Denver Women’s Correctional Facility To End Degrading Body Cavity Searches

August 25, 2010 12:00 pm

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DENVER – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Colorado are calling on officials at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility (DWCF) to immediately end a new type of degrading body cavity search in which correctional officers force prisoners to open their labia, and, according to some reports, even to pull back the skin of their clitorises.

In a letter sent this week to Ari Zavaras, the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, the ACLU says the searches – which occur even when guards have no particular reason to suspect concealment of contraband – raise grave concerns under the Fourth and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In its letter, the ACLU says 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.

“Given that prisoners at DWCF are already subjected to a strip search policy designed to uncover contraband, this new policy adds little to the search procedure other than additional humiliation and suffering,” said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “Prisoners have a constitutional right to be free from pointless and humiliating searches.”

Experts on mental health care in prison 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. According to the ACLU’s letter, 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 has received letters in recent weeks from prisoners at DWCF who complain that being forced to comply with the new search policy – under the threat of being doused with pepper spray – exacerbates prior sexual trauma.

The ACLU’s letter also charges that body cavity searches also may have occurred after prisoner visits with their lawyers. Not only are the searches unwarranted after such visits because of the low probability that an attorney would ever agree to smuggle narcotics or weapons into a prison, but they also could deter prisoners from meeting with their lawyers, compromising legal representation.

The ACLU also asserts in its letter that DWCF’s new policy 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 charges that prisoners have refused visits from friends and family in order to avoid post-visit searches.

“The fact that these searches deter visits can have a devastating impact on prisoners’ families, especially for prisoners’ children, who can only see their mothers during visits,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado. “Also, exacerbating mental illnesses through traumatic body cavity searches decreases the likelihood of re-entry into the community and could well lead to higher rates of recidivism.”

A copy of the ACLU’s letter is available online at:

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