CT officials consider ending routine strip searches in prisons

The entrance to the New Haven Community Correctional Center.

The entrance to the New Haven Community Correctional Center.

Photo by Arnold Gold/New Haven Register

Writing to legislators about strip searching in Connecticut prisons and jails, an incarcerated woman at York Correctional Institution described what it’s like to stand barefoot on a dirty tiled floor as a correctional officer examines her body from head to toe.

The officer instructs the woman to open her mouth, flick her tongue and tells her to lift her breasts, wrote Chasity West. Then she’s directed to bend at the waist, pull her buttocks open and cough. And in the worst of circumstances, a “notoriously crass and demeaning command” comes, West wrote: the correctional officer tells the woman to “show me the pink.” 

“Strip searches are one of the most humiliating and intrusive allowances that occur in prison facilities,” West said in the written remarks read aloud on her behalf. “To quote a supervisor, sometimes it’s done just to ‘remind them that they’re inmates.’” 

In a public hearing this week for a bill that would end routine strip searching in Connecticut, West and others condemned the practice as sexual violence and argued that it’s a tool deployed by correctional officers wanting to exert power over incarcerated people. But the proposal was opposed by some correctional facility employees who spoke about strip searching as a resource for deterring potential violence. 

Currently, the Department of Correction, which manages the state’s prisons and jails, carries out strip searches during an incarcerated person’s entry or return to a facility, transfers within a facility or out of state, and when entering or leaving a maximum security facility or housing unit. 

The agency can also do so when a person has participated in a “significant incident” during their incarceration, when submitting a specimen for urinalysis and at the conclusion of contact visits. 

Officials need “reasonable suspicion” to conduct a search, which also extends to incarcerated minors. 

But if passed, Senate Bill 1196 would raise that standard to “probable cause belief” that a person has contraband. The bill would require correctional officers to submit to their supervisor a document outlining the necessity for a search and get approval to proceed.

“It’s just hard hearing people go through that humiliating experience and for other people to not feel that. It’s dehumanizing, it’s degrading. It’s not just embarrassing. It’s a bit perverted,” said Barbara Fair of Stop Solitary CT, an organization dedicated to humane treatment in correctional facilities. “And the question for me is, ‘Why did it take so long for people to see something wrong with it?’”  

Kevnesha Boyd, a licensed counselor who formerly worked for the DOC, said she left the agency in 2019 after being traumatized from the dehumanization of people behind bars. She said there were incarcerated people who chose not to report sexual assault stemming from strip searches, due to fear of being ostracized and retaliated against. 

While the department’s policy says that strip searches are “normally” conducted in an area out of view of people not involved in the search process, Boyd said the practice reminded her of slave auctions: taking place in an open area, with no privacy and “a disregard for humanity.”

“One of the most disturbing aspects of being a mental health counselor for the Department of Correction is being the gatekeeper of sexual violence, abuse and offensive behaviors infiltrated by correctional staff,” Boyd said.

She said degrading strip search experiences limited the therapeutic effectiveness of correctional health care staff, and escorting incarcerated people to her office after seeing them naked was “always uncomfortable.”

But the DOC commissioner, Angel Quiros, and correctional officers painted a vastly different picture for lawmakers, detailing strip searching as a deterrent for slowing the spread of drugs and weapons in prisons.

Quiros said he opposes the requirement for probable cause, adding that since 2018 the agency has found contraband in more than a thousand incidents. He also said there are thousands of incarcerated people who enter correctional facilities for the first time, as well as people who return from court. The commissioner expressed worry about not being able to conduct strip searches on those people under the proposed bill. 

“I do have concerns that we will see an increase in contraband,” Quiros testified. 

Patrick McGoldrick, a unionized correctional officer, claimed that limiting strip searching would have “disastrous consequences” for both staff members and incarcerated people, while also mentioning the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Florence v. County of Burlington. 

The 5-4 ruling declared that conducting strip searches on people entering a facility’s general population, without probable cause, does not violate the constitution. 

McGoldrick also recited a story where a staff member didn’t properly search a person who had a razor, resulting in that person hurting someone else.

“In reality, it appeases those individuals who cause chaos within those facilities at the cost of the safety of the rest of the population,” McGoldrick said of the bill. “This will allow drugs such as fentanyl … weapons and other dangerous contraband to flow freely. The results will fall squarely on the shoulders of those who support this bill.”

He and Quiros said correctional staff don’t enjoy conducting the searches. 

However, Fair noted that correctional officers have also been accused of bringing drugs into the state’s prisons.

A former correctional officer was arrested and charged last year for allegedly selling drugs to people behind bars in Cheshire. In years prior, another officer was accused of bringing heroin and marijuana into a Bridgeport facility. 

At one point during the hearing, Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, brought up the possibility of investing in body scan technology for the DOC, similar to technology used by airport security. Strip searches would then only occur when there’s probable cause, aligning with the proposed bill’s intent, or when someone refuses to go through the scanner. 

He also cited a 2017 report from Washington state, which, in part, says the greatest advantage of body scanning technology is “the ability to discover contraband hidden” under someone’s clothes without the need for a strip search. The report says the amount of radiation exposure from the technology is “well within” federal guidelines. It also outlines the costs of the technology. At one county jail, for instance, the price of one installed body scanner was $225,000.

“I think it would save a lot of staff resources, it would save time, it would be more humanizing,” Stafstrom said. The idea seemed to pique the interest of some lawmakers and Quiros. 

It would presumably require significant funding from the state. 

The public hearing comes less than a year after passage of the PROTECT Act, which capped the time any incarcerated person could spend in isolation at 15 consecutive days, or 30 total days, within any 60-day period. 

An original version of the bill also limited strip searching, but the provision was taken out during negotiations. Fair had vowed to push for a separate bill addressing the practice during the current legislative session, while Quiros did not favor severe limitations.

On Wednesday, the commissioner was unable to answer certain questions about the DOC’s strip search policy, such as whether the agency conducts them for non-contact visits.

And during an interaction with Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, who asked Quiros whether minors are strip searched, he answered in the negative — only to answer another question by saying that minors charged as adults are searched. 

It was also unclear how often strip searches result in an officer finding contraband. 

In her testimony, Fair highlighted the contradictions and cited the Nelson Mandela Rules about prison reform, which hold that: “Searches shall be conducted in a manner that is respectful of the inherent human dignity and privacy of the individual being searched, as well as the principles of proportionality, legality and necessity.” 

“I don’t know how you have human dignity doing that,” she said.

West, the woman at York, said strip searching reminds women that the moment they enter prison, their bodies become subject to exploitation. 

“Most women in prison have already been sexually violated, and by allowing these searches, the state of Connecticut is sanctioning the continuation of this cycle of objectification and violence,” West wrote.