DETROIT, April 12, 2012 – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan are calling on the Michigan Department of Corrections to abandon a degrading body cavity search in which prisoners at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV) are forced to spread open their labia using their hands, often under unsanitary conditions and in full view of other prisoners.
"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," said Mie Lewis, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project.
In a letter sent today to Daniel Heyns, the head of the Michigan Department of Corrections, the ACLU, along with a broad coalition of human rights, health and religious groups, says the searches – which occur even when guards have no specific reason to suspect concealment of contraband – raise grave concerns under the Fourth and Eighth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In its letter, the ACLU says that while courts have upheld visual inspections of prisoners, forcing women to hold open their labia on a routine basis is gratuitous and constitutes unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain and humiliation.
The ACLU received letters from more than 60 prisoners who describe the same search procedure – they are forced to remove all of their clothing and use their hands to spread open their vaginas as a prison guard watches. The searches are carried out after visits with their attorneys and family members, and after shifts at prison jobs. Some prisoners are so traumatized by the procedure that they delay or avoid family visits, just so they won't have to undergo the search.
Lisa Wimbley, a prisoner at WHV, wrote: "For me, this is very similar to the acts that I was forced to perform as a child. Touching myself in front of someone is a very painful and personal issue... 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. I should not have to choose my dignity or a relationship with my family."
Experts on mental health care in prison have estimated that as many as 80 percent of women who are in jail or prison have been the victims of domestic violence and physical abuse prior to their conviction, a reality that compounds the infliction of pain caused by the needless body cavity searches. According to the ACLU's letter, courts recognize that previous sexual abuse suffered by many female prisoners increases the trauma caused by invasive strip searches and therefore heightens the constitutional violation. Many of the Michigan women prisoners who wrote to the ACLU confirmed this.
"This search is especially troubling in light of the long history of documented sexual abuse, harassment and humiliation in Michigan's women's prisons," said Kary L. Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. "Michigan stands out across the country in applying this unnecessary and invasive search. Even though prisoners are deprived of their freedom, they are still entitled to basic human rights."
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