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Connecticut Lawmakers Punt on Limiting Prison Strip Searches

by David M. Reutter

During their 2023 session, Connecticut lawmakers took a pass on legislation to rein in routine prison strip searches, which advocates testified were “humiliating” and “intrusive.” There was, however, widespread interest in appearing interested in the problem, resulting in a predictable decision by legislators to vote for additional study.

As proposed, SB 1196 would have raised the standards for guards to perform strip searches on those incarcerated – from “reasonable suspicion” to “probable cause that an individual has contraband,” as CT Mirror reported. But the measure was amended in March 2023, after a contentious Judiciary Committee hearing at which prisoner advocates and officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) took opposing positions on the issue.

Those testifying for prisoners argued for the bill’s requirement that guards obtain supervisor approval prior to conducting a strip search by submitting evidence of probable cause. Pushing back, DOC officials and guards defended the use of impromptu strip-searches to deter the spread of drugs and weapons. State Rep. Craig Fishbein (R-Wallingford), an opponent of the original bill, incorrectly stated it would “ban strip searches” in their entirety. Actually, in addition to increasing standards to conduct a strip search and requiring prior approval for one, guards would also have to submit a report afterward.

As adopted with the Judiciary Committee’s amendment, the bill now requires DOC to solicit bids by January 1, 2024, for equipment to conduct full-body X-ray screenings, much like the technology used by the federal Transportation Security Agency in airports. The amended bill also requires DOC to submit by February 1, 2024, a report detailing estimated costs of the technology, the number of machines required and information about potential health risks. As for replacing strip searches, the law merely directs DOC to assess the new technology’s capability.

The retreat into further study was a response to “the emotional public hearing testimony the Judiciary Committee heard about the overuse of strip searches in our state prisons,” said Rep. Steven Strafstrom (D-Bridgeport), the committee co-chair, “and while certainly we would like to see strip searches be put to an absolute minimum, this bill moves, I believe, in that direction.”

During the public hearing, Strafstrom cited a 2017 report from Washington state, which extolled body-scanning technology for providing “the ability to discover contraband hidden” under clothing and eliminate the need for strip searches. The amount of radiation exposure was well within federal guidelines, that report added, noting that the typical business flyer is subjected to more radiation.

Considering the wide-spread use of this technology in free society, the question that remains is whether a prisoners’ right to bodily integrity is worth $225,000 per unit, which is what the report said a county jail paid for one body scanner.  

Source: CT Mirror

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