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Fifth Circuit: Strip Searches Due to Security Concerns Not Unconstitutional

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a summary judgment order in favor of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (LDPSC), holding that strip searches of prisoners for security reasons are not unconstitutional.

Freddie R. Lewis, incarcerated at the Winn Correctional Center (WCC), filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against LDPSC and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, now known as CoreCivic) for alleged violations of his Fourth Amendment rights. He argued that he was subjected to unreasonable strip searches, that LDPSC failed to monitor CCA, and that both CCA and LDPSC failed to comply with their own rules and regulations. He sought injunctive relief and punitive damages.

Lewis worked in the garment factory at WCC, which subjects prisoners to strip searches twice a day. The garment factory has civilians who make deliveries and interact with the prisoner workers; it also has many tools which can easily be converted into weapons. The strip searches, prison officials said, are intended to control the introduction of contraband or weapons into the facility.

The searches are conducted in a partially-secluded room with windows near the exits at each end of the building. Two guards, Carol Melton and Joshua Clark, provided security for the factory. Clark performed the searches while Melton stood outside the door leading back into the garment factory to ensure no prisoner returned that way during the search. Clark stated in an affidavit that contraband items such as weapons, cell phones and marijuana had been recovered during the searches.

Lewis’ request for injunctive relief was dismissed as moot once he was transferred to a work release center. The court held his claim that LDPSC and CCA were not following their own rules failed to rise to the level of a due process violation. His remaining claim was dismissed when the district court granted summary judgment for the defendants, and Lewis appealed.

On September 1, 2017, the Fifth Circuit upheld the dismissal of the injunctive relief and due process claims, finding that when a strip search is conducted in a humiliating and degrading manner, it must be weighed against safety and security concerns with deference being given to corrections officials. In this case, the appellate court found that controlling contraband and weapons from entering the prison was a legitimate penological objective that made the strip searches at the garment factory measurable and constitutional.

“Controlling the flow of contraband and ensuring institutional security are legitimate penological objectives,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “The affidavits of WCC prison officials show that the search policies at issue were aimed at preventing the flow of contraband from the outside truck drivers and others to inmates in the Garment Factory and to the main prison. The search policies were also used to prevent the removal of items from the Garment Factory that could be used as weapons. Lewis has failed to rebut this reasonable justification for the strip and visual body cavity searches and has therefore not shown that the district court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants.”

The summary judgment order was therefore affirmed, and the case dismissed. See: Lewis v. Secretary of Public Safety and Corrections, 870 F.3d 365 (5th Cir. 2017).


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Related legal case

Lewis v. Secretary of Public Safety and Corrections, 870 F.3d 365 (5th Cir. 2017)