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Illinois Settles Visitor Strip Search Suit for $237,000

by Matthew T. Clarke

In 2001, the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) has settled a lawsuit by visitors who claimed strip searches conducted during their visit to the Pontiac Correctional Center (PCC) were unconstitutional.

In 1997, Marylin Tompkins and Jess Burgess filed suit in federal district court in Peoria, IL, alleging violations of their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches was violated when PCC officials required them to submit to strip searches prior to visiting prisoners without having reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. Attorneys Janine L. Hoft and Janis Susler of the People's Law Office in Chicago represented the plaintiffs.

The district court granted plaintiffs summary judgment and the DOC appealed. The Seventh Circuit upheld the district court's decision. Burgess v. Lowery, 201 F.3d 942 (7th Cir. 2000), [PLN Apr. `01]. The U.S. Supreme Court denied the DOC's petition for a writ of certiorari. The DOC then offered to settle for $237,000.

The People's Law Center, also filed a suit on behalf of Delores Smith, Mary Thompson, Sharon Walston, Nicole Watley, Desiree Weekly and Marlene Weekly in the same court subsequent to filing Burgess. They were allegedly unconstitutionally strip searched when visiting prisoners on Illinois's death row. Smith, et al. v. Lowery, et al., No. 97-1355. Three additional cases involving women unconstitutionally strip-searched prior to non-contact visits have also been filed in the court. Smysor v. Lowery, et al. (No. 99-1253), Smith, A. v. Lowery, et al. (No. 99-1255), and Alexander v. Lowery, et al. (No. 00-1433). According to Ms. Hoft, "many additional individuals contacted us after the statute of limitations had run. .... after media reports confirmed their lingering doubts about the lawfulness of being strip-searched. Many prison visitors erroneously believed that prison officials must have a good reason for requiring the strip searches and assumed the conduct was lawful."

In all cases, the visitors were told that they would not be allowed to visit if they did not submit to a strip search. Most were told that the strip searches were random. However, random strip searches are unconstitutional and jury awards for them have exceeded a half million dollars per plaintiff in some cases.

Furthermore, the log books maintained by the prison showed scant amounts of contraband from the strip searches. For instance, "in 1997, no contraband whatsoever was recovered for the 40 strip searches itemized in the gatehouse logbook." A total of 850 strip searches were conducted over a 4 1/2-year period. See: Burgess v. Lowery, USDC CD IL, Case No. 97-1244.

Sources: The Pantograph, private correspondence with Janine L. Hoft

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Related legal case

Burgess v. Lowery