ACLU Confronts Denver Prison’s Abusive Strip Searches

Allegations of abusive strip searches at a prison reflect the perverse power imbalance inherent in the system.

By Michelle Chen Aug 27, 2010

The ACLU has launched a blitzkrieg against the abuse of women in prison, from a health care crisis in a Wisconsin facility to horrid sexual abuse cases in immigration detention. But its case against strip searches at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility plumbs new depths of degradation. Prison staff have allegedly subjected women to traumatic and humiliating body-cavity searches using enhanced techniques that supposedly guard against hiding "contraband" in a woman’s genitals. The ACLU’s press release states that the group "has received letters in recent weeks from prisoners at DWCF who complain that being forced to comply with the new search policy–under the threat of being doused with pepper spray–exacerbates prior sexual trauma." According to one woman’s testimony to the ACLU:

The [labia] lift is treated differently by officers, but generally involves spreading your legs and parting your outer labia so an officer can do a visual inspection of your genitals. I have had to perform this procedure simply standing; from a sitting position with my legs spread eagle and having a flashlight shined at my genitals; from a standing position with a foot perched on a toilet and an officer’s face inches from my genitals; in front of multiple officers and once in front of an officer and two Life Safety trainees…. Being a survivor of sexual trauma the new labia-lift procedure encouraged my post-traumatic stress disorder. I had periodic flashbacks …. I have also witnessed women literally crying when they were subjected to the labia lift…

The ACLU doesn’t categorically object to visual inspections for security. But this distinctly invasive kind of probe, not to mention the unsettling alliterative moniker, seems deliberately aimed at dehumanizing women and rendering them utterly powerless over their bodies. The abusive impulse reflects the perverse power imbalance inherent in the prison system. The racial and gender lines that stratify Colorado’s prisons project the same intricate oppression on a mass scale. According to the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, "85% of women sent to Colorado’s prisons last year were convicted of a non-violent offense"–including many mothers of young children. Nearly half of the female prison population were "diagnosed as needing mental health treatment," and more than 80 percent were "assessed to be in need of substance abuse treatment." Moreover, Blacks made up less than four percent of the state population but roughly one fifth of people locked up in state prison. By compelling women to expose themselves in unspeakable ways, the prison staff teach their captives a lesson: once you’re inside, your body becomes public property.