The Naked Truth about a Strip Search

What is the goal of an inmate strip search? Who is able to conduct a search? Are there different types of strip searches? Can’t a body scanner complete the job?
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch

Buckle up, this blog is about the famous ole’ Squat and Cough. For those who don’t know what this is, search it on Urban Dictionary (not with children nearby). For those who do know what this is, let’s discuss the naked truth of this procedure, and how it can save a life. 

If you were to ask an inmate how they feel about falling victim to a strip search, they would say that it’s violating, degrading, and even could be considered sexual assault. Of course, as anyone could imagine, spreading your cheeks and coughing as hard as you can in front of an officer would be extremely uncomfortable. However, there is a reason why this practice is mandatory: to protect all of the lives inside the facility, officers and inmates alike.

This Part Isn’t Fun

There are different “levels" of strip searches, if you will. The most non-invasive level of search is called a visual inspection. This is where certified officers of the same sex (unless identified differently to comply with PREA) privately conduct the search from a short distance without any physical touch, and in the least embarrassing way as humanly possible. To successfully conduct this search, the officer would instruct the inmate to undress and stand with their feet apart, arms extended, palms facing upwards, and fingers spread apart. In this stance, the inmate is instructed to comb their fingers through their hair, open their mouth and run their fingers around their gums and stick out their tongue, while their nose, ears, armpits, soles of feet, groin, and rectum also visually inspected. They are also asked to temporarily remove any bandages or artificial devices (dentures, casts, prosthetic limbs, etc.) for examination. Although this is the most non-invasive level of search, it can still sound very imposing, but fortunately it doesn’t include poking a finger where the sun doesn’t shine.

 You may be thinking: wouldn’t a body scanner catch contraband? Is a strip search really necessary? The answer is no. Although a body scanner can likely identify metal, it cannot always successfully recognize other foreign objects hidden in an individual's body cavity (an internal body part that contains or protects organs). A manual body cavity search is known to be a more “invasive” level of search since it is required to be conducted by a physician or with specific instruments in a medical examination room, or other private area. Manual body cavity searches take place when either foreign objects are physically present during a visual strip search, or when the inmate is expressing behavior leading to the deputy to have a reasonable claim (such as signs of discomfort while walking or sitting, unusual posture, etc.). Although it’s an uncomfortable process as the search is intrusive with insertion and probing into more secluded areas (you get the picture), it’s a necessary procedure to confiscate any illegal substance before entering the facility, as well as ensuring staff and inmate safety.    

What Qualifies as Reasonable Suspicion?

Inspections can only be performed upon the suspicion that the inmate is carrying contraband, so what qualifies as reasonable suspicion? If the inmate has any current or previous convictions for possession of drugs or weapons, or crimes of violence, and doesn’t cooperate with facility staff or refuses to be searched, then the deputy has reasonable suspicion. Before conducting the search, the deputy needs to report their suspicion to the shift sergeant and be granted permission to move forward with the search. The shift sergeant makes the final decision to either approve whether or not the deputy has reasonable grounds to conduct a search. If the deputy were to propose a claim unsupported by facts, it would not be considered to be sufficient enough to conduct a search. Any and all claims brought forward to the shift sergeant need to be documented in the incident report with reasonable suspicion.

Once the deputy has a legitimate reason to conduct a manual body cavity search, the inmates are granted the opportunity to remove the contraband from their cavities themselves before the deputy has to take matters into their own hands (no pun intended). Once any strip search is complete, inmates’ clothing is also inspected and officers search with extreme caution to avoid being cut by sharp objects, especially when feeling around the pockets, zippers, cuffs, and collars. Details of the search will be documented in an incident report and any hidden objects will be properly stored or disposed of.

Strip searches are typically performed individually in a secluded area, but there are a few scenarios when searches take place throughout the entire facility, such as during routine cell checks or shakedowns. Another scenario happens when inmates are entering the facility upon being outside the facility grounds (working offsite, furlough, etc.). Strip searches will also take place when there is a threat present in the facility (reasonable belief that several inmates are simultaneously possessing contraband such as a weapon, stolen property, or a controlled substance). 

How Can This Procedure Save a Life?

Of course, being asked to drop your trousers, squat, and cough, will always place you in an extremely vulnerable position. However, it should never be considered as sexual assault as it’s a procedure to protect lives. If you had a loved one locked up behind bars, you would sleep better knowing that the facility staff is doing everything in their power to prevent dangerous contraband sneaking into the facility. All facility staffs’ goal is to protect their inmates, partners on the line, and themselves from harm, even if that means temporarily searching a naked body for contraband. Knowing that the stranger standing in line next to you doesn’t have a knife or bomb is well worth the few minutes of awkwardness.

References:

Rivera, Jose (2018). Visual Body Cavity Search vs. Manual Search
Retrieved from: https://www.legalmatch.com/law-library/article/visual-body-cavity-search-vs-manual-search.html