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

(update below)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Michigan report the Michigan Department of Corrections has decided to no longer routinely subject women to body cavity searches at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional facility. The facility had been forcing women to spread the lips of their vaginas for searches after shifts in prison jobs, after receiving medical care and after being visited by family, religious workers, lawyers or any other person who might want to see them in prison.

The Corrections Department will now only have guards at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV) search women they suspect to have “contraband.” The change is the result of a consortium coming together to challenge the depraved procedure.

Here is the list of groups and individuals that came together to make this victory possible:

American Civil Liberties Union; American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan; American Friends Service Committee – MI, Criminal Justice Program, American University, Washington College of Law, Project on Addressing Prison Rape; Center for Civil Justice; Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers; Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending; Crossroad Bible Institute; Destiny and Purpose Community Outreach; The Elephant Circle;

Grassroots Leadership; Hope 4 Healing Hearts, Inc.; Just Detention International; Justice Now; Law Students for Reproductive Justice; League of Women Voters of Michigan; Legal Services for Prisoners with Children; Metro-Detroit Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW); Michigan CURE; Michigan State University College of Law Civil Rights Clinic; Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project; MindFreedom International; National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health; Nokomis Foundation; Our Bodies Ourselves; Rabbis for Human Rights – North America; State Bar of Michigan Prisons & Corrections Section;

United Methodist Church; General Board of Church and Society; Urban Justice Center; Women On the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH);Devika Baldeo, Sister Inside Specialist, Women On the Rise Telling HerStory – WORTH; Erika Lorraine Davis, Butler Davis, PLLC; Hope Metcalf, Lecturer, Yale Law School; Tim Johnson, Department Chair, University of Michigan Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Daniel Manville, Associate Clinical Professor, Civil Rights Clinic, Michigan State University College of Law; and Sheryl Kubiak, Michigan State University School of Social Work.

For full coverage of all the details on how the facility was routinely violating women, here’s the story published at The Dissenter earlier – “The Sexual Sadism of the Michigan Department of Corrections.”

Senior staff attorney with the ACLU, Mie Lewis, reacted to the victory, “There was no reason to make this incredibly invasive procedure part of the routine strip search.” And added, “The new policy eliminates the worst aspects of the body search, helping to preserve these women’s dignity while maintaining a safe prison environment.”

It should be made extremely clear. What was happening to these women was a human rights violation that the US government opposes when it is done to Afghan women. Yet, under the guise of public safety, the Michigan Department of Corrections was routinely committing human rights violations at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility. Someone should be held accountable and be fired or, perhaps, even face prosecution; but there is a culture of impunity for government officials that develop and enforce policies which result in the cruel or inhumane punishment of human beings. Justice for female prisoners who were traumatized is unlikely.

As I wrote in my earlier coverage, 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.

Michigan ACLU staffer Sarah Mehta told Detroit Free Press “she interprets the decision as applying to only new prisoners, not to those already in prison.” All the same, the decision was a step toward normalization of a practice that should be rarely used and not employed as often as prisons in America tend to use them.

Female prisoners may no longer be subjected to routine vaginal searches, but the key question should be if this will become rare or not. That correctional officials have to have “suspicion” just means the guard has to cite a reason now for searching a prisoner. It could still happen often, but one hopes that the work the ACLU and other groups in Michigan did will bring about serious change for female prisoners, women who are already being punished for whatever they did and do not deserve to be dehumanized and violated.

Update

As I find the conversation on the Florence decision that Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog had on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” incredibly relevant to the issue presented by this correctional facility doing routine vaginal searches on women, I’m posting this video clip here: