USA: prison strip searches are not only inhumane—they cost taxpayers $300 million

If any process deserves a #TimesUp moment, it’s the state-sanctioned strip search.

In addition to being inhumane, strip searches are expensive and waste a ton of taxpayer money. They are also disproportionately ineffective, according to research.

A strip search has none of the nuance, ambivalence, and complexity we often have to grapple with in the context of modern-day #MeToo allegations.

It’s difficult to fight for human rights inside the prison system, because the system is so opaque. But A strip search is a pretty cut-and-dry act:

One person with power over another is given legal authority to order the disempowered party to disrobe and display their genitalia. The person with power is often then authorized to penetrate the other person’s private parts and body, without their permission.

We have more dignified, more effective—and significantly cheaper—methods to keep contraband out of correctional facilities.

According to lawyers who have represented women in lawsuits over strip-search practices, “jail authorities believe that vaginal smuggling of contraband is easier (or more common) than anal smuggling,” which explains why “a disproportionate number of the strip-search class cases involve women” in the predominately male prison population. But focusing on demographics alone sidesteps the fact that strip searches are universally traumatizing, regardless of privacy expectations, gender, or whether the person being searched is a visitor to a jail, an arrestee, or a sentenced detainee. Some legal scholars believe they’re tantamount to sexual assault.

In my years spent in prison, I’ve endured at least 250 of these forced flashing sessions.

After a while, the acrobatics became rote; the bending, the spreading, the coughing.

The humiliation never got easier. But it taught me an enduring lesson: the forced naked displays aren’t about security, but about policing bodies and instilling fear and shame in a person.

Who pays?

Unsurprisingly, litigation follows closely behind strip searches because, even when they’re conducted legally, they’re still abusive. And litigation costs all of us—figuratively, if you make the human-rights case, but literally as well.

Class action suits have been filed in California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, costing states and municipalities millions. Single plaintiff suits have been filed in more states including Missouri, Minnesota, Texas, and Utah.

A paper by Margo Schlanger, a law professor at the University of Michigan and an expert in correctional litigation, mentions cases that collectively paid out $132 million for strip searches.

Published in 2008, the paper doesn’t even include Los Angeles’s new $53 million settlement, or Cook County, Illinois’s $60 million in damages for strip-search violations, or that the city of New York has shelled out $80 million since 2001 for the same, or that the city of Milwaukee paid $5 million to 74 plaintiffs whose rights were violated during strip searches conducted by police officers looking for drugs. One plaintiff said his strip search was so violating that his anus was bleeding.

That’s more than $300 million in payouts.

From my own experience, I know that contraband poses a serious risk to the safety and security of a correctional facility.

But there are more dignified, more fruitful—and significantly cheaper—methods to keep dangerous contraband out of correctional facilities.

The true extent of the toll

Most contraband enters facilities by the staff, not through people held in jails and prisons. This isn’t news to most people who spend, or have spent, time in the US prison system, but the Prison Policy Initiative got people’s attention with an in-depth study it published in 2018.

The think tank reviewed news reports of people who were caught and charged with importing contraband into local jails and found that overwhelmingly, the person who introduced a prohibited item into the facility was a staff member, not someone in custody.

Some years earlier, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor raised these same concerns during an oral argument on a 2011 strip-search case, Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders.

There has to be a better way (there is)

The current cost of strip searches certainly isn’t justified by results.

And it’s not as if equally effective alternatives don’t exist. Many local jails have already traded cheek-spreading for SecurPass, a body scan machine system that uses X-ray technology to detect contraband hidden on or inside a person.

The Washington State Department of Corrections proved this in 2017 when the organization issued a report concluding that body scanners are more effective at finding contraband than strip searches. The report also places the cost at approximately $250,000.00 for two machines—far less than what will likely be paid out in future litigation, if the continued legal recourse is any indication.

The only service strip searches do legitimately provide is that they ferret out dangerous objects at the time of inspection. While having a human extract contraband from a person is necessary, using scanner machines would mean guards or authorized personnel would only have to perform an extraction when they already know something needs to be extracted. And if less invasive methods can work to achieve the same end, then there’s really no valid reason to continue this practice.

We’ve seen how alternative searches are both less costly and more effective—never mind safer—than brutal physical searches. It’s time to swap strips for scans nationwide.

If we don’t see a change, the cost of litigation associated with correctional strip searches only stands to increase. Two class-action cases were resolved in 2019, but the complaints alleged acts that took place in 2010 and 2011, before Prison Rape Elimination Act standards went into effect in August 2012. (To demonstrate how little the government values the safety and well-being of people in its custody, it’s worth noting that the law was initially passed in 2003, meaning the standards had no force of law for almost a decade.)


Now that the standards are operative, strip searches stand to cause even more legal problems for jurisdictions that use them. For instance, the Prison Rape Elimination Act prohibits cross-gender viewing, meaning guards cannot see an inmate “of the opposite gender” in a state of undress. The requirement challenges staff who interact with transgender inmates., which is why the Obama administration introduced regulations to protect trans people in custody.

Last year the Trump administration decreed that transgender inmates in federal prisons will be housed according to their biological sex. Besides the fact that this required federal prisons to reverse preexisting federal protections for transgender inmates, it also means future strip searches are likely to cause more damage and problems than they will solve. And end up costing states and municipalities even more.

There’s an undeniable basic human rights argument to cease this practice.

But if that doesn’t move voters, or the government, there’s also the fact that continuing to use strip searches is only draining our coffers to cover the damages from an antiquated and harmful practice. And as we see proven over and over again, the existing system does not make anyone safer.

This is not good governance. It’s a practice that breeds cultural trauma, ineffectively addresses a real danger, and bleeds us all for our tax dollars. We have other options here. Strip searches need to stop.

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