That was quite a training session administrators at Logan County’s Lincoln Correctional Center held in 2011 for new prison guards. The subject: How to conduct a proper strip search.
Controversy growing out of it already has resulted in years of litigation and may — just may — end up at the U.S. Supreme Court before all is said and done.
For now, however, the state corrections department has won the legal point, although it certainly fails in the area of style.
A federal appeals court in Chicago recently rejected a class-action civil-rights lawsuit filed on behalf of female inmates who contend the mass strip search by prison guards violated their civil rights.
“For more than 20 years, it has been established in this circuit that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to visual inspections of prisoners. It is best to leave the law of the circuit alone, unless and until the (U.S. Supreme Court) justices suggest that it needs change,” Justice Frank Easterbrook wrote in the three-judge panel’s 2-1 decision.
Writing in dissent, Justice John Z. Lee noted that other federal circuits have issued conflicting decisions on the “visual inspection” issue. He argued the real issue is not whether guards physically touched any inmate, but whether their conduct was either reasonable or constitutionally excessive.
The U.S. Supreme Court hears very few of the cases it’s asked to review. When it does intervene, it’s often because justices in the 12 federal circuits have issued conflicting decisions that require the high court to set a national legal standard.
What will ultimately happen remains to be seen. Chicago lawyers representing the female inmates said they will ask the 7th circuit to review the three-judge panel’s decision, a request rarely granted.
The lawsuit raises the question of to what extent prison inmates are entitled to privacy when it comes to physical searches of their person.
The 7th circuit said that because the guards made no physical contact with the women, their conduct is constitutionally protected. The dissenting justice said the reasonableness of the guards’ search, not physical contact, is the primary legal question.
Lee described the event in lurid detail. He said evidence showed that, without explanation, “200 hundred female inmates were rounded up” by a “tactical team in riot gear,” handcuffed and taken to a gymnasium. Once there, the women were required to disrobe and submit to full body inspections.
“This mass strip search ... was conducted solely for training purposes, but the training was not strictly necessary, as most cadets graduated without it,” Lee wrote.
The women ultimately filed a federal lawsuit heard by Springfield U.S. Judge Richards Mills.
They alleged the searches violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Mills dismissed their Fourth Amendment claim. A jury rejected the woman’s claim that the searches were cruel and unusual punishment.
The women then appealed Mills’ decision to dismiss their unreasonable-search claim.
Prison inmates, owing to their convictions, forfeit virtually all the constitutional rights free people enjoy. As a consequence, they are subject to what Easterbrook described as guard behaviors “that offend and even injure prisoners, yet contribute to prison management and security.”
“Only those steps that are unnecessary and intended to produce injury. ... should be actionable,” Easterbrook wrote.
Included among those offensive steps are strip searches. The 7th circuit has ruled that visual inspections are constitutionally defensible because inmates have forfeited their rights to a reasonable expectation of privacy in their person.
The women “allege a visual inspection, not a physical intrusion. They maintain that each inmate had to manipulate her own body but not conduct that the prison’s staff touched any inmate,” Easterbrook wrote.
He noted that “the law in some other circuits is favorable to plaintiffs” but that “the most one can say for plaintiffs is that judges, including those within the Seventh Circuit, have disagreed about whether the Fourth Amendment ever prevents guards from viewing naked persons.”