LINCOLN — A criminal justice reform group is disappointed by a divided federal court ruling that says the constitutional rights of female prisoners weren't violated during a forced strip-search inspection at Lincoln Correctional Center eight years ago. The case has drawn national attention and could lead to proceedings before the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The word that keeps coming to mind is dehumanizing," said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a Chicago not-for-profit organization that monitors correctional facilities and advocates for reform.
The Illinois Department of Corrections declined to comment on the ruling.
The case is over a search in March 2011 involving about 200 handcuffed inmates. The plaintiffs, six women searched during the incident, said in a court filing they were made to strip naked, including exposing their genitals, in rooms that were visible to male correctional officers, civilians and the public.
The women, the filing said, "were forced to stand barefoot on the bathroom floor, which was dirty with menstrual blood and other bodily fluids."
"The women on their menstrual cycles were told to take out their tampons... and not given tampons after," according to the filing. "They were forced to put their clothing back on with glib suggestions that they use toilet paper if necessary. Many of these women got blood on their legs, feet and clothes."
It was later revealed the search was part of a training exercise for new prison cadets, according to the federal complaint.
The lawsuit claimed the inspection violated the Fourth Amendment's guarantee of privacy against unreasonable searches. A panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in a 2-1 vote last week rejected the lawsuit and said that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that inmates have very limited privacy and guards didn't break any rules.
The dissenting judge said the case suggests that rules on inmate searches need to be reviewed. He said a key difference in this incident was that the searches were for training purposes.
In his dissent, Lee wrote "the peculiar circumstances of this case raise the question of whether the time has come for this court to reconsider its broader position with respect to the application of the Fourth Amendment to inmates' bodies generally."
But judges Frank Easterbrook and Daniel Manion said there is precedent for this kind of ruling.
"For more than 20 years it has been established in this circuit that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to visual inspections of prisoners," they wrote. "It is best to leave the law of the circuit alone, unless and until the justices (of the U.S. Supreme Court) suggest that it needs to change."
Vollen-Katz said the association is not directly involved in the case but is disappointed that inmates' limited right to privacy was superseded by the needs of correctional officers conducting a training exercise.
"In a correctional setting there's obviously a difference in terms of what somebody's right to privacy might look like, and that is not wholly unreasonable in maintaining safety. ... But putting aside the legal question, looking at the facts of this case, this is deeply troubling," she said. "If there is a legitimate goal in training staff to do these kind of searches, there has to be a less invasive, more respectful way to do it."
The Lincoln site opened in September 1984. In 2013, women from the Lincoln Correctional Center were moved to the Logan Correctional Center as part of a reorganization of facilities.
Lindsey Hess, media administrator for the state corrections department, said the agency "cannot comment on pending litigation."
The Washington Post, American Bar Association and Chicago Tribune Editorial Board wrote about the case, with the Tribune saying "maybe a training exercise of this sort goes too far," and the Post noting Los Angeles County the same day settled a similar case for $53 million, its largest settlement ever.
Contact Derek Beigh at (309) 820-3234. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_beigh
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