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North Carolina Pays $43,500 to Women Strip-Searched By Prisoners

by Michael Rigby

The North Carolina Department of Corrections (DOC) has paid $43,500 to four women who were subjected to strip and body-cavity searches performed by other prisoners and to a fifth who was beaten when she refused to undress.

The assaults occurred in a disciplinary housing wing at the state's Correctional Institution for Women after one of the assailants discovered money missing from her personal property, said Michele Luecking-Sunman, a staff attorney with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services (NCPLS), which represented the victims. The woman singled out the five victims, then enlisted the aid of several other prisoners and proceeded with the strip and body-cavity searches. After four of the victims were searched and probed--some more than once--the assailants turned to the fifth victim and began beating her. Eventually, another prisoner was able to hit the call button and request help.

Though the women were confined in disciplinary segregation, no guard was inside with the women. Rather, one guard was stationed outside the wing and another inside a control picket. Windows allowed the guards full view of the interior, yet neither guard intervened at any time during the attacks.

Typifying the official response to prison sexual assaults, Warden Anne Harvey characterized the incident as a game" in statements to the media. Four of the victims were willing participants, she contended, until the fifth prisoner resisted and they became embarrassed. Phil Griffin, a senior attorney for NCPLS, called Harvey's statement incredibly crass and inhumane.

One of the prisoners, who asked not to be identified, told a local newspaper that guard Kathy Hatley entered the wing at one point and saw the women naked but left when one of the assailants told her, I've got it under control." The prisoner said she and the 3 other strip search victims were left in the wing while the prisoner who was beaten was transported to the hospital. They huddled in their beds, she said, terrified they'd be attacked again.

The next day they received counseling and medical treatment for vaginal tears, rectal tears, and bruising. At least one of the victims also suffered an infection. The unidentified prisoner described the incident as rape: It was: do it or get beat up," she said.

The assailants were relegated to several months in disciplinary isolation, but were not criminally charged. Witnesses said that the women made statements, at the time indicating a willingness to be searched," said Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby. He noted that if he pursued the case, the victims' credibility would be impugned because they have criminal records. He did not say why the victims were any less credible than the attackers, whom were also prisoners.

Willoughby also declined to release a report by the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), saying state law required him to get a judge's approval. Raleigh attorney Amanda Martin, an expert on public records law, said no such law exists. A spokesman for the SBI agreed.

Martin said Willougby should release the information. This is such an outrageous sequence of events that certainly the public should have a full understanding of why the state has entered into a settlement agreement that resulted in the payment of public funds.

Prison officials apparently were not too convinced by their own version of events--they settled soon after NCPLS sent them a demand letter describing the incident. In November 2004, they agreed to pay $11,000 each to three of the search victims and $8,500 to the fourth. The victim who was beaten received $2,500. In addition, the DOC agreed to station a guard inside the wing.

Notably, the October 2, 2003, strip searches occurred at a time when the Prison was overcrowded and understaffed. The prison, has a maximum capacity of 1,200 but held 1,264 prisoners. Moreover, nearly a fifth of the 424 guard positions were unfilled. Prison officials assert the conditions played no part in the assaults. But investigation by NCPLS found that Warden Harvey and other prison officials had been warned that removing a guard from the disciplinary wing (one used to be stationed inside) could invite such an assault.

Guard Hatley was eventually fired and another guard was disciplined.

Additional sources: Associated Press, The News & Observer (Raleigh)

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