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Seventh Circuit Holds Illinois Prisoners Retain Fourth Amendment Rights to Bodily Privacy, Overruling Circuit Precedents

In 2011, over 200 female prisoners at the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) Lincoln Correctional Center were subjected to an abusive mass strip search as part of a training exercise for cadets from the DOC academy. The cadets were mixed in with guards, including a tactical team dressed for a riot in helmets, armored vests, and military boots while armed with batons, shields, and pepper spray.

The women were forced to stand in rows, shoulder to shoulder, facing the wall while guards called them “bitches” and threatened to segregate them if they were not quiet. During that time, cadets practiced handcuffing the prisoners. This went on for hours, causing some of the elderly prisoners to cry out in pain for being forced to stand so long.

The prisoners were moved to the gym where guards screamed obscenities at them and called them sexually derogatory names. They were again forced to stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the wall. Then cadets practiced strip searching them in groups of four to 10. All the women were required to stand for five to seven hours while the strip searches went on. During that time, they were not allowed to sit, get a drink of water, or use the toilet.

Female cadets performed the strip searches in a restroom and the barber shop. Male guards and cadets could see the women as they were strip searched and made demeaning remarks about them. Menstruating prisoners were ordered to remove feminine products and toss them on the floor and in overflowing garbage cans in full view of others. Women stood barefoot on the dirty floor, which was covered in menstrual blood.

Ieshia Brown, Delores Henry, Patricia Philipps and Jacqueline Hegwood filed a class-action federal civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging DOC officials violated their Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights in conducting the abusive strip search. They sought damages and an injunction prohibiting future strip searches for cadet training.

The district court certified classes encompassing women who had been strip searched during the incident and remained in DOC custody; or had been released; as well as current and future Logan prisoners. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that, pursuant to Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517 (1984) and Johnson v. Phelan, 69 F.3d 144 (7th Cir. 1995), “there is no Fourth Amendment protection against searches for prison inmates.”

The court granted the motion, dismissing the Fourth Amendment claims. The case proceeded to trial on the Eighth Amendment claim, and the jury found for the defendants. Plaintiffs appealed the Fourth Amendment claim’s dismissal.

The Seventh Circuit held that Hudson was limited to searches of cells and did not address bodily privacy. It concluded that prisoners had a diminished Fourth Amendment right to bodily privacy that protects against unreasonable searches, consistent with the nine other circuits that have addressed the issue.

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Related legal case

Henry v. Hulett