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Male Guards’ Videotaping of Female Prisoners Being Strip Searched Results in $675,000 Settlement

In August 2014, a Massachusetts federal district court granted summary judgment to a class of 176 former and current prisoners who challenged a policy at the Western Regional Women’s Correctional Center (WCC) that allowed male guards to videotape female prisoners being strip searched. The court held the policy violated the prisoners’ Fourth Amendment rights, and the case subsequently settled.

The lawsuit was brought by lead plaintiff Debra Baggett, who spent all but nearly three weeks from September 5, 2008 to January 28, 2012 at WCC. The facility houses both pretrial detainees and sentenced prisoners from four western Massachusetts counties. The court granted class-action status in the case in May 2011.

At issue was WCC’s policy governing the transfer of prisoners into the facility’s segregation unit if they presented a suicide risk, committed certain disciplinary infractions or needed to be in protective custody. The policy required a minimum of four guards to make such transfers. It also subjected each prisoner to a strip and visual body cavity search that required her to strip naked and “lift her breasts, spread her legs, bend over, and spread her buttocks.” If she was menstruating, she had to remove any tampon or pad.

The objectionable portion of the WCC policy was the videotaping of such searches by male guards. From September 15, 2008 until the court’s August 26, 2014 summary judgment order, male guards were present during and recorded 274 strip searches. “For 90% of these searches, two or more females were in the cell, and during 58%, three or more females were present,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Ponsor.

In what the court called a “dubious” defense, prison officials had asserted that “any videotaping by male guards occurred without the male actually looking at the female he was actually filming.” The videos themselves belied that assertion, as 68% “show[ed] some or all of the women’s genitals, buttocks, or breasts; and 82% ... show[ed] some portion of the women below the neck.” The defendants’ theory was “difficult to conjure up” when considering the demands of keeping the camera steady and trained on the correct location in the cell. Yet, as there was a disputed material fact as to whether male guards had directly viewed the women during the searches, the court did not grant summary judgment on that issue.

It did, however, grant judgment to the plaintiffs based upon the fact that male guards were “in the immediate vicinity conducting videotaping” while the prisoners were being strip searched. The district court found it was clearly established that a prisoner’s privacy rights are “violated when guards of the opposite sex regularly observe him/her engaged in personal activities such as undressing, showering, and using the toilet.”

Just “the nearby presence of an individual of the opposite sex during a strip search can be in itself a deeply humiliating experience,” the district court wrote. “No inmate placed in such a vulnerable and exposed position should have to rely, or comfortably would rely, on the scrupulousness of an officer of the opposite sex turning his or her head as a safeguard to the inmate’s privacy and basic dignity.”

Therefore, the court granted summary judgment to the class members based on the presence of male guards during the searches, held the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity, and ordered the parties to submit plans for equitable relief and monetary damages.

The state appealed to the First Circuit. While the appeal was pending, however, the parties entered into settlement negotiations, and in March 2015 asked the district court for preliminary approval of a settlement. Pursuant to the agreement, which was approved by the court on April 9, 2015, officials at WCC will “change their policy to prohibit male correctional officers from holding the camera during the strip searches of female inmates except in exigent circumstances.” The prisoner class members will also receive a total of $675,000, including $178,000 in damages payable to the class, $475,000 in attorney fees and $22,000 in costs.

The class representative will receive $20,000 and four prisoners who had their depositions taken will each receive $2,000, payable from the damages award; other prisoners who were videotaped by male guards during strip searches will each receive approximately $875. The district court granted final approval of the class-action settlement on September 10, 2015, and the state’s appeal was dismissed.

The prisoners were represented by Boston attorneys Howard Friedman and David Milton. See: Baggett v. Ashe, U.S.D.C. (D. Mass.), Case No. 3:11-cv-30223-MAP.

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Related legal case

Baggett v. Ashe