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Allowing male guards to videotape strip searches of female inmates at a western Massachusetts jail is not only humiliating but unconstitutional, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor said in the ruling Tuesday that allowing men to videotape nude female inmates at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center is "antithetical to human dignity" and "deeply humiliating."
"It is possible some inmates might not care, but for the vast majority of inmates the scene would reasonably be experienced as painfully degrading," Ponsor wrote. "To suggest otherwise is to ignore the inborn sense of privacy most human beings harbor from childhood through the end of life."
The class-action lawsuit filed against the Hampden County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, and Sheriff Michael Ashe Jr., was brought on behalf of 178 former and current detainees at the Chicopee jail. The plaintiffs said the policy was a violation of their protection against unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment.
"It is demeaning and dehumanizing. The fact that many female prisoners have histories of physical and sexual abuse, and that many suffer from mental illness, can magnify the harm caused by this degrading practice," said David Milton, an attorney for the women.
Milton said the next step is for the court to determine monetary compensation for the women.
The sheriff's office said the male guards were trained to step out of the room behind frosted glass, turn their heads, and take video only from the neck up. Theresa Finnegan, staff attorney for the sheriff's office, said the defendants would likely appeal.
"There is not a shred of evidence that any male correctional officer ever watched or even saw anything," Finnegan said Wednesday.
Male guards were used in the process only when enough female guards weren't available to properly and safely carry out the searches, she said. Two female guards as well as a female supervisor were always present, she said, and using men to videotape is such a rare occurrence that it has only been done once in the past two years.
The judge rejected the defendants' arguments.
"In sum, defendants' attempt to offer justifications for their policy is flatly inadequate to provide a bandage for its constitutional deficiencies," Ponsor wrote.
Ponsor noted that Ashe has a good reputation running the county's jails.
"The hallmark of his long tenure as sheriff has been scrupulous attention to the dignity of every inmate, consistent with the operational requirements of the particular facility," the judge wrote. "Unfortunately, in this case a misjudgment occurred resulting in a policy that clearly transgressed the Constitution and injured the plaintiff class."