Invasive Strip Searches Halted at Michigan Women's Prison

By Rachel Walden — April 18, 2012

[Note: this post and the linked materials contain graphic discussion of sexual abuse, rape, and prison genital searches.]

A Michigan women’s prison that was practicing a particularly degrading type of visual body cavity search on prisoners has agreed to stop the searches.

Earlier this month, the ACLU sent a letter to the Michigan Department of Corrections demanding that they end the practice of performing spread-labia vaginal searches at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility.  During such searches, women were required to sit on a chair or table and spread their own labia for inspection by prison guards. The women were sometimes forced to undergo such inspection in view of other prisoners, and if they objected, could “be forced to submit through physical force or punished with solitary confinement.”

Our Bodies Ourselves signed on to the ACLU’s letter objecting to these practices, along with several other organizations.

Despite the invasiveness of the inspections, no apparent attention was given to hygiene or to the women’s health. From the letter:

In addition, measures to assure sanitation during these invasive searches are often incomplete or ignored entirely, resulting in women being 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. A disposable liner for use on the chair is rarely if ever provided, and women are seldom permitted to sanitize the chair or wash their hands after the search. At least one woman has suffered a vaginal infection which she believes was contracted during a spread-labia vaginal search.

These searches were not just performed on women newly entering the facility or on those suspected of hiding contraband – they occurred every time the women had visitors, even legal representation or religious workers, and after prison work shifts or receipt of medical care. No considerations were apparently made regarding the actual seriousness of the threat if there was suspected contraband, or for individual women’s physical or psychological needs. For example:

On one occasion, 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. No exceptions are made for women who are menstruating, pregnant, ill, or have been sexually abused, whether prior to or during their incarceration.

The ACLU received letters from more than 60 prisoners about these searches; some of their stories have been shared online. Here and elsewhere, women have described not wanting to receive any visitors (because of the search afterward); the discomfort of being forced to touch their own genitals in front of others or of having their PTSD triggered; and feeling that they are being raped when subjected to these exams.

The Michigan Department of Corrections said it had ended the practice in December, while the ACLU said it continued to get complaints about it more recently. Last week, the ACLU confirmed that the practice has now been stopped.

Such spread-labia searches are apparently *not* the norm in prisons nationwide. Even a spokesperson for the state prison stated (emphasis added):

“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.”

This type of search will now only be conducted when there is suspected smuggled contraband, although it is not clear how well that standard will be enforced.

An editorial at the Detroit Free Press called the practice “demeaning and unnecessary,” and notes that follow-up is needed to ensure compliance with the halt:

Warden Warren deserves credit for taking the initiative to investigate the policy and end it, at least officially. But given the department’s history of sexual abuse, Corrections must now take additional measures to ensure the new policy is followed, as well as review its polices on strip searches in general to determine if they are necessary and conducted in the least degrading manner possible.

Kudos to the women who wrote letters to the ACLU and to the ACLU for bringing this invasive, unnecessary, and traumatizing practice to light.

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