The American Civil Liberties Union said it plans today to urge the Michigan Department of Corrections to ban an invasive vaginal strip search that humiliates female prisoners.
It said women are forced to expose themselves, often with unclean hands while sitting on an unsanitized chair and in full view of other prisoners, while a female guard checks to see whether they’re concealing contraband.
The ACLU said it believes Michigan’s is the only prison system in the nation to routinely use such searches as a matter of policy.
“There is no logical reason for these searches, so the only conclusion we can come to is that they are designed only to humiliate and degrade these women,” Mie Lewis, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, said in a statement that will accompany a letter to Michigan corrections officials. The letter is signed by nearly two dozen human rights, health and religious groups.
A state prison spokesman said Wednesday that Millicent Warren, the warden at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Pittsfield Township, ended the invasive searches on Dec. 16 after concluding they weren’t finding contraband in the state’s only female correctional facility.
“Corrections officers didn’t think it was necessary, prisoners felt it was an irritant, the prison psychiatric staff thought it was a stressor and, in nearly two years, it didn’t find any contraband,” spokesman Russ Marlan said.
The ACLU insisted Wednesday that the invasive search is still being used based on complaints from prisoners. It also said it believes Warren only stopped having the women sit on an unclean chair. The ACLU wants the practice banned by state prison policy.
The searches can be especially traumatic because many female prisoners are victims of sexual assault, the ACLU said.
Over the years, female prisoners in Michigan have been awarded more than $100 million in suits resulting from sexual assaults by corrections staff.
“Touching myself in front of someone is a very painful and personal issue,” Lisa Wimbley, 45, told the ACLU in a Nov. 28 letter. She’s serving 19-30 years for second-degree murder.
“I feel as though I am being raped every time I have a visit and this is done to me, yet I endure to have a relationship with my daughters and grandchildren,” she said.
The ACLU said the searches are required when women leave work assignments or visit with lawyers and family — even when they aren’t suspected of smuggling contraband.
A 44-year-old prisoner serving time for armed robbery told the ACLU that kitchen workers in 2010 once were forced to submit to the invasive search in front of each other because a guard suspected them of smuggling chicken.
“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,” the prisoner wrote to the ACLU. “I felt as 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 drugs,” she said.
Several women said they have forgone family visits to avoid the searches, the ACLU said. Women who refuse to cooperate can be forced to submit or be put in solitary confinement, the ACLU added.
Maureen Buell, a specialist at the National Institute of Corrections in Washington, said many prison systems are cautious about female strip searches “because of the history many women bring into the system — they’re often victims of childhood or adult sexual assaults.”
The ACLU letter comes less than two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that jailers could perform invasive strip searches on people arrested for even minor offenses. The case involved a New Jersey man who was strip-searched in two county jails after his arrest for failing to pay a fine that he had, in fact, paid. Justice Anthony Kennedy said strip searches are justified to check for such things as lice, contagious infections and contraband.
Michigan ACLU staffer Sarah Mehta said she interprets the decision as applying to only new prisoners, not to those already in prison.
She said the ACLU doesn’t object to the search if prison staffers have reason to believe a female prisoner is concealing contraband.
But she said the so-called squat-and-cough strip searches, though undignified, are preferable because they don’t require women to touch themselves in front of others.
ACLU spokeswoman Rana Elmir said both male and female prisoners are required to submit to strip searches in which they spread their buttocks. But “what women are being required to do is the men’s search-plus,” she said.