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Illegal Strip Searches Cost Chicago Jail $6.8 Million

In July 2001, the Cook County, Illinois Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to end a five-year long class-action suit brought by female prisoners who alleged that the strip-searches they were subjected to at the Cook County jail were unconstitutional. The Board approved a $6.8 million settlement which could be split up among the 2,600 members of the class.

In 1996, then-prisoner Tonya Townsend and two co-plaintiffs brought suit in federal court claiming the manner in which they were strip-searched was degrading, overly humiliating, and unnecessary. Townsend's suit detailed that, along with 15-40 other women, she would be told to spread her legs, squat three times and cough, in order to free possible hidden contrband. If one person didn't do it just right, everybody would have to do it again. And again.

The group would then be instructed to spread their buttocks and lift their breasts. And if she had flab, to lift her stomach. Menstruating women had to remove their sanitary napkins, causing blood to drip on the floor. All the while the guards, both male and female, would walk by making lude comments, catcalls, or other degrading gestures, increasing the level of humiliation. In addition, the area in which the women were routinely strip-searched was equipped with security cameras, allowing anyone to view the procedure.

Shortly after the suit was filed, U.S. District Judge David Coar issued a restraining order forbidding the jail from this type of strip-search procedure and ordered that all strip-searches be conducted in private. Despite the order, Coar found that the jail continued to utilize the "mass" strip-search procedure for several months in 1997.

In March 1997, Coar ruled that women returning from court appearances who were to be released must be given the option of either returning to their cells to gather their belongings or waiting in the reception area while jail staff bring their possessions to them. Only those that choose to return to their cells were to be strip-searched.

Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheehan denied nearly all of the allegations in the suitincluding that unleashed drug-sniffing dogs were allowed to approach the nude women; that the floors were so fouled with urine, feces and blood that even the guards reported the stench made them feel like vomiting; and that women faced a risk of contracting tuberculosis, hepatitis or HIV. Instead, he claimed that the rooms were actually "spic-and-span."

Sheehan further claimed that being forced to strip-search the women one at a time would create an undue burden on his jail staff. Instead, women are held in "bullpens," sometimes for hours at a time, until some sort of critical mass was reached, at which time the group strip-searches would commence. Sheehan held to his claim even after it was revealed that New York City strip-searches its female prisoners one at a time and in private rooms.

Thomas Morrisey, an attorney for the plaintiffs, would not comment on the settlement, except to say that "we're very pleased with it."

In defending the suit, Assistant State's Attorney Michael Jacobs said, "the Constitution doesn't mandate that the jail be the Trump Taj Majal."

Sources: Chicago Sun-Times ;Chicago Tribune

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