Inmate challenges use of strip searches in state prisons
Shebri Dillon is behind bars for a fraudulent real estate deal. At the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women she’s been a model prisoner.
“I live in the prison’s honor wing," she says. "I’ve never had a drug history, and I don’t have a violent history.”
Even so, female guards subject her to regular strip searches. At the ACLU Sean Weneta says inmates are routinely searched during prison-wide inspections or shakedowns, before and after doctor appointments, or meetings with visitors and when coming and going from certain jobs.
“You are stripped, you are made to squat and cough, bend over, spread your cheeks, lift various parts of your anatomy depending on what your gender is, and I can speak from experience on this, because I was incarcerated for 16 years in the Virginia Department of Corrections,” he says.
Dillon adds that women must remove tampons if it’s that time of the month, and she compares these searches to a sexual assault.
“It’s akin to rape, because you have to leave your mind to be able to perform this – like leaving your reality, pretending you’re somewhere else. I mean you’re getting naked and showing the inside of your body orifices to a complete stranger.”
She’s not alone in that view. Jessica Fugatt is also imprisoned at Fluvanna.
“It is probably the most disturbing thing that I have to go through here. It takes me days to get mentally back to where I should be, because it’s traumatic.”
For years Dillon submitted without complaint.
“You don’t want to tell people when something abusive happens to you that is embarrassing and humiliating," she explains. "I don’t want to tell you that somebody has looked at my tailgate, some of which may have been looking at me sexually, some of whom may be looking at me like I was the scum of the earth.”
But after the prison was locked down for more than two years during the pandemic it occurred to her that it wasn’t so much inmates or visitors bringing in contraband. In 2021 there were just 3 visitors caught trying to smuggle in drugs, while there were 16 incidents involving staff.
“When we had no visitation due to COVID, all of our movements were incredibly restricted, drugs exploded in here, because the corrections officers don’t make enough money, and half of them don’t stay here very long. They bring it to people who are locked in cages, can’t do anything, can’t go anywhere.”
We asked the Department of Corrections how often guards found drugs during body cavity inspections, and we wondered if Dillon had a point when she suggested hi-tech screening be used instead.
A spokesman said responding to those questions would pose a threat to security, but Dillon is determined to get answers. She has filed a formal grievance with the warden at Fluvanna and has reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I understand we’re in prison. I understand there are security issues, but they also have to understand that we are human beings, and that a lot of the practices are degrading. They’re dehumanizing, and if they serve no security purpose they need to be revisited.”
At American University’s School of Law, Professor Brenda Smith says courts give prisons wide latitude in searching inmates, but prisoners might still enjoy some constitutional protection from unreasonable searches.
“I think the frequency of the searches is certainly something that a court would look at to figure out whether they were justified.”
The state requires at least two staffers do a strip search, and with guards in short supply, counselors, librarians or secretaries may be asked to observe. Smith thinks that might constitute a violation of the fourth amendment protection of privacy, and she thinks Dillon might have an 8th amendment claim too.
“These searches are traumatic and are -- in that way -- cruel and unusual punishment.”
She adds that other prisons consider a woman’s history of possible abuse before ordering a strip search.
“Agencies are very careful to consider whether this – in and of itself – is a form of sexual victimization.”
And even if Dillon does not prevail in court, law professor Smith thinks she might prompt the Department of Corrections to re-consider its current practices.