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Colorado Women Prisoners Call Strip-search Procedure Demeaning, Traumatizing

Being strip-searched has long been a part of incarceration. But prisoners at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility (DWCF) say a change in their strip-search procedure subjects them to undue humiliation and leaves some of them traumatized, particularly those with a history of sexual assault.

Boulder Weekly has received 10 hand-written letters from prisoners at DWCF describing their experiences with the new strip-search procedure, which requires women to part and lift their labia and to pull back their clitoral hoods to prove that they aren’t hiding contraband in their vagina or vulva.

Some of the prisoners complained that the new procedure is causing them great distress due to past trauma.

Others state that contact with and comments by a lesbian guard have left them feeling demeaned. Still others write they are considering curtailing their visits with loved ones, as well as their involvement in prison programs, in order to avoid being strip-searched this way.

Prisoner Krystal Voss writes, “I’ve been through daily strip searches as a condition of my job in the print shop for 2-1/2 years. It did not bother me much until the ‘new procedure’ began.

“The first time I was told to spread my labia for a search, the [guard] doing it grinned and acted very pleased to see my inner folds. She is apparently a lesbian and very masculine,” Voss continues. “I thought it was just her demeanor that upset me, but it continued to feel like a violation. Each time, no matter what the [guard] does to give the order, I feel violated, anxious and humiliated. I am one of the few who has never been raped or molested. I’m sure it is much worse for those who have been.”

Tanya Martin-Hayes writes that depending on which guard is performing the strip-search, a prisoner might be required to do more than part her labia; she might be required to pull back on her clitoral hood for visual inspection.

“We are being forced to submit to further humiliation, degradation and violation by staff,” she writes.

Those who refuse may face “physical force and intimidation,” as well as the loss of prison jobs, housing assignments and family visits.

One prisoner writes that not only does she find the procedure “humiliating, frightening and unnecessary,” she is also concerned about hygiene issues and the possible spread of sexually transmitted infections by hand.

“There is no place to wash our hands in the strip-out room, and with the high rate of diseases such as hepatitis C and herpes in the prison population, I feel this puts us all at risk,” she writes.

Several of the letters received by Boulder Weekly were written by women who say they are victims of past sexual violence and feel further traumatized by the invasive nature of this procedure.

“I am a survivor of incest,” writes one DWCF prisoner. “... [W]hen this subject is talked about, I have a near panic attack. I start crying, and I have to walk away. I haven’t experienced the new ‘strip-out’ procedure yet. My children/grandchildren are planning a special visit to see me, and I want to call them and say, ‘Don’t come.’” The prisoner writes that she doesn’t want to participate in any prison program that might require random strip-searching of participants for fear of having to go through the procedure.

Several of the prisoners who contacted the paper say that many of the guards are as uncomfortable with the new procedure as they are and have asked them to write grievances about it in hopes that DWCF will return to less invasive methods of strip-searching.

According to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti, the procedure prisoners have been experiencing since January isn’t a new procedure.
However, it wasn’t being used in Denver. DWCF wasn’t being consistent with the procedure followed at La Vista Women’s Correctional Facility in Pueblo.

“There was conversation between the two women’s facilities, and everybody came into compliance,” Sanguinetti says. “Now we follow our policy very strictly, and that does not include squatting and coughing. It’s completely a visual assessment.”

She says it’s important to note that women are never strip-searched by men, nor are male prisoners strip-searched by women.

She also says that if a lesbian guard were to say or do things during a strip-search that made prisoners feel uncomfortable, DOC would want to know about it “absolutely.”
“If they’re not comfortable reporting it with their names, we have an anonymous tip line they can call,” she says.

When asked how guards would respond to a prisoner who refused to comply with the strip-search, Sanguinetti said most likely the prisoner would be cuffed and placed in an observation cell — a dry cell — where prison staff could talk to the person.

But one letter writer claims that a prisoner who refused had a can of pepper-type spray held in front of her face and was told to comply or risk getting doused.

Sanguinetti defends the invasiveness of the procedure, saying it is necessary to curtail the introduction of contraband into prison. In the few weeks prior to DWCF’s implementation of this procedure, there were instances in which prisoners had smuggled contraband between their labia.

“It could be cigarettes, drugs, razor blades — things like that,” she says.

Though she has never heard of women being required to pull back their clitoral hoods and could not say what a woman might be able to smuggle there, she says that, on the men’s side, male prisoners are made to retract the foreskins of their penises during a strip-search.
As for re-traumatizing survivors of sexual assault, Sanguinetti says DOC has mental-health staff available to work with prisoners.

“Our mental health is very aware of it and very able and willing to address those issues as they come up,” she says.

But some question the wisdom of enforcing a blanket procedure on a population in which high numbers have experienced sexual trauma, suggesting that perhaps the more invasive strip-search should be restricted for prisoners who break rules and are at risk for smuggling contraband.

“I have had a [certain] job for three years, and in my five years that I have been incarcerated, I have been writeup free,” writes one prisoner, who did not want her name published. “It is a requirement of my job, as well as having to strip out every day. I have never had a problem with that until they added the new labia lift procedure. I feel like I am being punished for following the rules. I don’t believe this new procedure is necessary for people who don’t get in trouble ever.”

This article was originally published in Boulder Weekly ( on July 15, 2010, and is reprinted with permission. Pamela White is the editor of the Weekly.

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