Screen shot from video produced by ACLU on the strip-search procedure (photo: ACLU)

Update: Michigan Department of Corrections Abandons Routine Body Cavity Searches

A consortium of civil liberties, religious and health organizations and experts including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are challenging a strip-search procedure prisoners in Michigan’s Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV) are forced to submit to that is nothing less than sexual sadism by the state. In the prison that operates under the umbrella of the Michigan Department of Corrections, women are forced to remove their clothing and spread the lips of their vagina so that a guard can peer inside. Female prisoners are forced to do this after they meet with family members, religious workers, their lawyers or anyone else who may visit them in prison.

Women who have been subjected to this depraved procedure are given voice in a letter submitted to the state’s Corrections Department. Rather than outline what guards in the facility do, here are a few descriptions from victims:

They place you in a chair. You are completely naked. I had the officer then tell me, “spread your pussy lips.” Then I had one tell me to put my heels on the chair and use my hands to open my lips. … I feel like I’m being prostituted by these officers … I am an abused woman, and every time this happens I feel completely lost again.

Another woman:

[A]fter a visit with my brother, I was [] searched in the chair by [a guard], who ordered me to get completely naked, sit on the edge of the chair, open my legs wide, touch myself and open the lips of my vagina. No lining paper or sanitizer were provided. … I looked at the chair and saw spots from other prisoners’ bodies. I could not seat my naked body on these spots, my stomach turned and I became nauseated. In order to comply with [the guard]’s order, I had to place my shirt on the chair, the shirt that I wore back to my housing unit after the strip search, before I sat down butt naked, with disgust. … After the [] search was completed, there was no soap available at the sink to wash my hands, after I touched myself. I have not had a visit with my brother in a long time to avoid this torturing procedure. I become literally sick before and after each visit. … Additionally, I am Muslim, and the Muslim religion prohibits women from exposing themselves in any manner or shape, especially in the manner I was being ordered to do so. This procedure violates my religion.

From a woman forced to submit to a group search:

There are no words in the human vocabulary that can express how I felt as I was forced to strip down butt naked in front of other women. … I [saw] naked bodies that I didn’t want to see, and I felt as if I was being raped all over again, like I had been raped in the streets. It broke my self-esteem down so low because I have these ugly scars all over my body from the beatings that I suffered in the streets from different men when I was getting high off of drugs. But this time I had to face the abuse sober … . I realize that we have very little privacy once we become inmates, but we are still human beings and we still have rights.

And, if you aren’t nauseous from reading those firsthand accounts of sadism:

Because I am a survivor of domestic abuse, this [] search incident has caused me extreme emotional distress and has resulted in flashbacks of the abuse that I endured in my thirty-year marriage to an abusive spouse. When the Officer, a person of authority, ordered me to pose naked in a degrading and humiliating way that I viewed as sexual in nature, I was powerless to refuse; and, I experienced the same feelings of shame, helplessness, and vulnerability that I experienced while being victimized by my abusive husband. Now, just the thought of a visit causes me to have anxiety attacks for the [] search that I know awaits me and it dredges up those memories of past abuse that I am working so hard to forget. Any student of history knows that using one’s position of authority to force another person to strip completely naked and pose in a degrading manner in their presence is a technique used to humiliate, degrade, and strip away a person’s last vestige of dignity. It is the ultimate form of control, domination, and humiliation designed to break an individual …

To be clear, this is not something that happens every so often and female prisoners feel violated. This is a routine procedure guards are ordered to carry out on prisoners after any prisoner is visited. They are also carried out after “women’s shifts in prison jobs, after women receive medical care and at other times.” And, if the prisoner objects to the “spread-labia vaginal search,” physical force is used or they are put in solitary confinement.

Sometimes this perversion is utterly absurd. One time, “four kitchen workers were subjected to spread-labia vaginal searches in full view of one another because a guard believed that some chicken might have been stolen from the kitchen.”

Steps to assure sanitation are not taken. The women are “exposed to the menstrual blood or other bodily fluids of other prisoners when they sit on the chair, including those suffering from serious communicable conditions such as HIV and hepatitis.” Disposable liners for the chairs aren’t typically provided, women are unable to wash their hands or sanitize the chair after the search.

And, the worst part is not what happens to women during the search. The worst part is that it is used on women in the prison at all. The ACLU explains it serves no “practical purpose” 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.”

Not repulsed by the sadism of the Michigan Department of Corrections that seems like something out of a women in prison grindhouse film? The ACLU asked for a “log of recovered contraband.” The department told the ACLU no log is kept and refused to turn over any records on how much “contraband” had been yielded from the use of this procedure.

This traumatizes women, exacerbates mental illness and makes it even more likely that, if released, they will commit another act that leads them to end up back in a correctional facility again. Furthermore, by putting women in a situation where they do not want to meet with their family because they will have to be searched, women have a harder time achieving rehabilitation.

Here is a video that ACLU produced on the procedure. It contains nudity and appropriately but disturbingly presents the depravity of the procedure:

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The procedure does nothing for security. It breaks down the female prisoners’ sense of self making them submissive just like strip-searches on prisoners at Guantanamo that involve prolonged nudity and examination of their genitals make them helpless. When compared to the treatment of individuals like Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of releasing classified information to WikiLeaks and was stripped of his clothing and forced to sleep naked when he was being held in Quantico Marine brig, it is just as authoritarian.

Weeks ago, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case of Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington that corrections officials could strip-search individuals being admitted to jail, even those that had committed only minor offenses. It is exactly this kind of sexual sadism that the decision makes permissible in correctional facilities and the fear that correction officers would violate prisoners in this manner is why there was outrage at the decision that the Obama Justice Department supported.

As JoAnn Wypijewski wrote in her reaction to the decision published at TheNation.com:

…Catapulting across the ages to our own time, sexual menace is so embedded in the American prison complex, in its elaborations of control and projections for public entertainment—on what other plane do rape jokes win the easy laugh?—that inevitably it must seep into the language of the law. And so it has. “Pornographic” is too pleasant a word to describe what animates the Court’s decision and the Obama administration’s supporting brief in the Florence case, a creepy fetishism that might make Larry Flynt blanch…

Or, as David Bromwich lays out brilliantly in The Authoritarian Catechism” that addresses how morale is changing in this country, those running the country find there are “good” and “bad” people. Police and prison officials “determine who is good and who is bad.” Anyone arrested is assumed to be “bad.” Anyone who protests their “innocence loudly” or speaks with “indocility to an officer of the law” will be regarded as someone who has “committed an offense graver than many crimes on the books” (e.g. protesting spread-labia vaginal searches).

“Breaches of politeness toward authorities” will be stored in a record “for future use regarding the conduct of all Americans.” This record will be kept because Americans have consented to laws that affirm nothing is more important than “our safety.”

“Duty to keep America safe” and “‘protect’ all Americans” will always outweigh the necessity to ensure Constitutional laws are respected (e.g. the Fourth Amendment). “Apparent violation of an existing law by a designated authority, so long as it can be seen as consistent with the higher duty of the maintenance of safety, is itself a sufficient reason for a change of law to accommodate the violation.” If Congress doesn’t effect this change, the Supreme Court will. (e.g. Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington).

“There is a proper trade-off between unalienable rights and collective safety, just as there is a trade-off between the moral commandment not to commit injustice and the human desire to live as long and comfortable a life as we possibly can.” (e.g. to fly on an airplane you must submit to TSA body scans or pat-downs). When safety and comfort require “injustice be done to individuals, injustice is tolerable and should be supported by other Americans.” (What does it matter if women are being subjected to sadomasochism routinely?)

It is incorrect for an accused person to be “indignant at things” done to them, such as the use of “unnecessary force or humiliation.” The “correct posture is to be grateful to authority for the things that have not yet been done.” (The women do get to meet with visitors. At least, prior to meeting with prisoners, the visitors don’t have to submit to “spread-labia vaginal searches” or full body cavity searches too.)