Dignity restored

State women’s prison confronted by ACLU, changes policy on strip searches




As a result of pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Colorado, female inmates in Colorado’s prisons will no longer be subjected to an invasive strip search procedure that many inmates found humiliating, overly invasive and even traumatic.


Boulder Weekly reported on the issue in July after receiving 10 hand-written letters from inmates expressing distress and outrage over the procedure, which required them to strip, part their labia and draw back their clitoral hoods while standing with one foot on a bench or chair or sitting back in a chair with their legs spread (“Stripped of dignity,” July 15). Inmates were required to hold this pose while guards examined their genitals at close range with a flashlight to make sure they weren’t hiding contraband.

Inmates can be strip-searched at any time, but strip searches are mandatory under certain circumstances — upon initial arrival at the prison; any time an inmate has been outside the prison; after contact visits with family, even children; and after working in a location inside the prison that includes items considered to be contraband in an inmate’s cell.

But this procedure, nicknamed the “labia lift” by inmates and put in place at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility (DWCF) by the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) last January, was so extreme that it was “essentially unheard of,” according to David Shapiro, a staff attorney with ACLU’s National Prison Project in Washington.

Shapiro says he first read about the practice in Boulder Weekly, and the ACLU then moved quickly to end it, contacting DOC directly and putting out an online call to action asking the public to voice its outrage via e-mails to DOC.

ACLU sent a letter on Aug. 24 to Ari Zavaras, director of DOC, charging that the searches were conducted even when guards had no reason to suspect an inmate was concealing contraband and raised “grave concerns” under the Fourth and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“Generally, the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment says that you can’t inflict unnecessary pain for pain’s sake,” Shapiro says. “In legal terms, there can’t be an infliction of unnecessary and wanton suffering. There are [court] cases that hold that certain types of strip searches can be unnecessary and wanton.”

For example, courts have ruled that having male guards pat down female inmates can violate an inmate’s constitutional rights. Although courts have upheld some kinds of strip searches, they might be inclined to find against a policy as extreme as the “labia lift,” he says.

“It’s not a policy that is necessary for security or really serves any sort of security function,” Shapiro says. “There are other forms of strip search that are not nearly as invasive, but are just as effective. The Colorado policy was also an outlier among state departments of corrections. It was essentially unheard of. All of that combined to make it very clear that this was really a policy that was inflicting a lot of pain on prisoners and just wasn’t necessary.”

An estimated 80 percent of female inmates have experienced sexual violence. The single biggest indicator of future criminal behavior among women is childhood sexual abuse. Inmates with a past that includes sexual violence felt deeply traumatized by being forced to endure the “labia lift” search.

“These searches had a devastating impact on prisoners and threatened to undermine rehabilitation,” Shapiro says.

In letters to Boulder Weekly, some inmates described having panic attacks or feelings of extreme violation. One refused to strip and was threatened with pepper spray by a guard. Others curtailed visits from family and gave up other activities out of fear of being strip-searched.

The new procedure outlined by DOC Sept. 24 requires inmates to bend over, squat and cough, a policy in line with jails and departments of corrections across the U.S. Shapiro says he has received written confirmation from an inmate that the invasive searches have been eliminated. The ACLU plans to stay in contact with DOC and inmates about the issue.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com