Jail Strip Searches
Sheriff: County jails to limit number of strip searches
By Jeff Mitchell
FAIRFIELD -- In an open effort to avoid drawing legal fire, Sheriff Gary R. Stanton has modified his department's approach to strip searches in the county jails.
The changes, formally introduced late last month, reduce the number of people who are subjected to the embarrassing personal searches such as the one experienced earlier this fall in San Francisco County by a 70-year-old Roman Catholic nun after her arrest at a peace rally.
"I've been bookended," Stanton said of a series of lawsuits challenging strip searches in the county lockups in Sacramento and San Francisco. "I think the policy we've adopted strikes a good balance between inmate and officer safety and the preservation of personal dignity."
But Stanton's changes may not go far enough, Sacramento attorney Mark Merin said in a recent interview. A longtime civil rights attorney, Merin has represented several clients who say they were strip-searched while jailed in both Sacramento and San Francisco counties for misdemeanor infractions.
"We're still examining Solano County's new policy, but I can tell you that it appears to have flunked the first-look test," Merin said.
Both California law and federal judicial rulings have made it clear those jailed for minor offenses may only be subjected to strip searches when it's abundantly clear they are violent, have a weapon or are in possession of some kind of contraband, he said.
"The federal standards on this are clear," Merin said. "You can't just strip-search people willy-nilly or because that's the way you've always operated. To do so is to violate the law. Period."
Preserving inmate dignity
The new changes in the Solano County jail are designed to help keep an inmate's dignity in one piece, Stanton said. Previously, anyone brought to the jail could be subject to such a search.
Now, only inmates actually booked into the facility and who meet a "reasonable suspicion" standard will be strip-searched and then only with a supervising officer's written consent, he added.
The county's new policy also governs how and where the searches can be conducted, he said. Those who are searched will have a same-sex jailer conduct the examination and the search itself will be done in a semi-private area.
Likewise, those inmates placed in the so-called "isolation" or "safety" cells following a strip search will no longer be left in the cells naked. The new policy requires the inmate be issued a T-shirt and undergarments.
The issue of who gets searched and who doesn't goes directly to keeping both inmates and corrections officers safe, Stanton said.
Life behind the walls of a lockup can be dangerous, said Keith Bloomfield, who worked as a corrections officer for more than 16 years before becoming sheriff's spokesman.
With an total capacity of 1,151-beds at two facilities, the Solano County jail system processed 19,174 inmates in 2002, the latest year for which statistics were available. By comparison, the San Francisco County jail processed more than 50,000 inmates that same year.
Inmates assaulted 116 Solano corrections officers in 2002, averaging about 9.6 incidents each month, Bloomfield said. Statistics showing how many inmates were strip-searched while in custody in 2002 weren't immediately available.
Currently, 246 corrections officers, sergeants and technicians work in the county's jails, both located in Fairfield.
As the number of strip searches falls, the county will work on getting more sophisticated "wand"-style metal detectors into the hands of corrections officers and implementing better prisoner "pat down" search procedures, Stanton said.
Multiple lawsuits filed
But according to Merin, strip-searching prisoners without cause or for those detained for minor offenses is wrong and in many cases violates a person's 4th and 8th Amendment rights.
Merin filed and won a class action lawsuit in February on behalf of a group of seven people who were strip-searched at the Sacramento County jail after being arrested on suspicion of failing to disperse during a protest rally at the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in 2001, the Sacramento Bee reported.
A judge in that case ruled both Sacramento County and its sheriff, Lou Blanas, were liable for damages.
Following that suit, Merin in November filed a similar action again San Francisco County and Sheriff Michael Hennessey following the strip search of the Roman Catholic nun.
Four lawsuits have been filed against San Francisco since April related to strip searches, according to the Associated Press.
Reports of inappropriate strip searches have occurred elsewhere, too.
Los Angeles County altered its policy earlier this year after settling a $2.7 million lawsuit by 21 bike activists who said they were strip-searched following a protest, the AP reported. In 2001, New York City paid up to $50 million for strip-searching inmates in its Queens and Manhattan jails.
Needed to be done
Aside from helping the county dodge costly legal assaults, the new strip search policy - first informally instituted in the jails late last spring - is the right thing to do, Stanton said. So far, nothing untoward has happened since the county started the new practice, Bloomfield said.
A working group at the California State Sheriff's Association crafted the policy and, according to the association's legal counsel, it places the county well within compliance of both California and federal legal standards on the issue.
The change should help shield the county from prisoner lawsuits but should also make the county's jails more humane places, Stanton said.
"I can think we can sometimes get into the mode where we're more focused on getting the job done right and efficiently and not so much on the dignity of the person you're processing," he added. "This needed to be done."
Reach Jeff Mitchell at 427-6977 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
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