ACLU Joins Lawsuits Charging That Michigan Jail Illegally Forced Inmates to Strip

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
March 28, 2005 12:00 am

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DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced today that it will join in three lawsuits that have been filed against the Saginaw County Jail for allowing egregious and unconstitutional treatment of detainees. All three cases challenge policies that allow prison personnel to strip inmates, and two of the cases charge that detainees were stripped and held naked in a cell referred to as “the hole.”

“The treatment of prisoners here is reprehensible,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “There is absolutely no excuse to treat any person in this manner and especially in a pre-trial setting before there’s even been a conviction of wrong-doing.”

The three lawsuits, Rose v. Saginaw County Jail, Whittum v. Saginaw County Jail, and Brabant v. Saginaw County Jail, were filed in the U. S. District Court, Eastern District, Northern Division, and assigned to Judge David M. Lawson. In January, Judge Lawson found in Rose that the practice of holding detainees naked in segregation is unconstitutional, but he has yet to rule on damages in that case.

In all three cases, those arrested were misdemeanor, pre-trial detainees held for minor offenses. In both Rose and Brabant, the prison policy required those who are perceived as uncooperative to be placed naked into an administrative segregation cell where they can be viewed by jail personnel and inmates of the opposite gender.

Under the policy, if a detainee refuses to surrender their clothes, force is used in the form of a “take down” which often includes a physical blow to the body, the use of a chemical spray, and even removing the clothing with scissors. In addition, prison personnel of the opposite gender also take part in the disrobing, at times violently, and in the subsequent video monitoring and live cell checks.

According to Christopher Pianto, the Flint lawyer who initially filed on behalf of the 22 Rose plaintiffs in 2001, a former inmate provided a statement alleging that trustees, who are inmates that have earned the privilege of working in the jail, would vie for the job of emptying the trash cans near the video monitor in order to view the naked pre-trial detainees.

“How is it possible for the sheriff to testify that ‘there is absolutely nothing wrong with what we did?'” asked Pianto.

One of the detainees represented in the lawsuit, Amanda White, then 21-years-old, was in the jail after being beaten by her boyfriend and released from an emergency room. It was Ms. White’s first offense for intoxication. In spite of the fact that she had stitches in her head and broken ribs, the guards at the jail, some of them men, forcibly stripped her after she begged to use a bathroom and then left her in “the hole.” In the process, one of the stitches was dislodged and the medical appliance to support her broken ribs was withheld.

Linda Rose, a 36-year-old woman from Montrose, MI, was being detained on a misdemeanor when she was put in “the hole” after repeatedly asking if she could call her parents for help.

“I knew what they were doing to me was wrong,” said Rose. “I squatted in a corner with my arms crossed over me for three hours trying to stay out of the camera’s view because I knew that strangers were watching me naked. I never want this to happen to anyone again.”

In addition to the lawsuits challenging the naked segregation, a third lawsuit (Whittum) challenges the jail’s strip search policies as violating a Michigan law that limits strip searches to inmates who were arrested for a felony or are suspected of having drugs, weapons, or contraband. The policy mandates that when changing, women are forced to remove their tops, flip their breasts from their bras or remove them, remove their pants, drop or remove their panties and “squat and cough.” Male prisoners in the work release program also change their clothes in the presence of a female guard and are forced to completely strip, squat and cough, raise their genitals, and spread their buttocks.

“The ACLU is getting involved in these cases because Saginaw County Jail’s policies are a violation of basic human rights. We are asking the court to intervene with an order that these practices be ceased immediately,” Moss said.

Last year, the ACLU successfully resolved a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of approximately 250 women who charged that Livingston County Jail personnel violated their privacy rights. The county agreed to implement policies to correct the longstanding privacy violations. In addition, the case ended with an agreement that the jail will build adequate housing facilities for the women who had previously been denied work release privileges that were available to male inmates. The county also paid $850,000 in compensation and attorney fees to end the litigation.

According to Michael Pitt, one of the attorney’s working with the ACLU on both the Livingston and Saginaw County cases: “Over the last two weeks, we have talked to dozens of men and women about the inhumane and degrading experience of being thrown naked into ‘the hole’ of the Saginaw County jail, often over something quite trivial like asking a simple question or disagreeing with something a guard said.”

To read Judge Lawson’s opinion in Rose v. Saginaw County Jail, go to: http://www.mied.uscourts.gov/_opinions/Lawsonpdf/01-10337DML.pdf.

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