Imagine that you are told to strip completely naked in front of a stranger. They have a camera, and you must reveal the private parts of your body to them. This is not something you want to do, yet you are not free to decline their request without risk of harm.
Would you consider that to be sexual violence? Take off your clothes. All of them. Bend over. Spread your butt cheeks. Cough. Cough louder.
If you are incarcerated, you will be strip searched often: when you are admitted into the facility, when you are returning to the facility from the hospital, when transferred from a new facility, when entering or returning from specialized housing units like restrictive housing or mental health housing, during prison shakedowns, after having contact visits with friends and family, meeting with your lawyer or a clergy member, and more. Importantly, you cannot freely consent, as the correctional officers carrying out the strip search have absolute power and authority over you. You cannot refuse without fear of backlash, as refusal likely results in a ticket to solitary confinement or forceful removal of your clothes.
Strip searches are purportedly used to reveal contraband – concealed objects that are not permitted in carceral facilities or that are used or altered for an unauthorized purpose. Thus, many correctional officers and administrators assert that strip searches are integral for ensuring that prisons and jails are secure environments for staff, incarcerated peoples, and visitors.
Certainly, it is the responsibility of correctional staff to ensure carceral facilities are safe and secure. Yet, strip searching is an abuse of power that plays out in the form of sexual violence. Further, correctional officers do not need a reasonable suspicion that an incarcerated person has contraband in order to conduct a strip search.
In Connecticut, there is a growing coalition of people and organizations who yearn to see the end of unnecessary strip searches in prisons and jails. Stop Solitary CT, a grassroots justice organization, has been leading this charge by providing a platform for victims of this state-sanctioned sexual violence to share their stories.
Over and over, regardless of one’s race, gender, age, or specific carceral setting, the same words came up when currently or formerly incarcerated people talk about their experience with strip searches: degrading, humiliating, dehumanizing, intimidating, inhumane, horrible, traumatic. Moreover, for each individual with their own unique constellation of prior life experiences, the scourges of this practice impact everyone in profound, nuanced ways. As such, the horrors of strip-searching compound with one’s pre-existing circumstances and previous traumatic experiences.
The stories that have been shared by currently and formerly incarcerated people expose strip searching as state-sanctioned sexual violence – and they evoke a visceral reaction when heard. Below is a sample of some of the stories that have been shared with Stop Solitary CT about strip searches in Connecticut prisons and jails.
Many men and women revealed that they felt preyed upon by correctional officers who conducted their strip search: a comment on their vulva size or color, a judgment about their vaginal discharge, a mention of the size of their testicles, a remark about their chest size, laughing and snickering, jokes, a suggestion that they should meet up later for sex, a slap on the butt, a command to hold the bent over position longer than is truly needed. Some would avoid visits with their families and friends just to protect themselves from these experiences.
Many women discussed how, if they were menstruating, they were told to remove their bloody tampon in front of the correctional officers during the search. Other women discussed having to be strip searched while pregnant, or upon return to the prison after giving birth at the hospital. With fresh c-section scars and difficulty walking, you are strip searched all the same.
One man said it took him a long time to feel comfortable talking about his experiences with strip searching, and it was not until a conversation with a colleague about strip searches that he realized he had been a victim of sexual violence while incarcerated.
Another man said he felt emasculated every time he was made to strip in prison. Afterwards, he would reflect on how this practice was likely linked back to forcing enslaved peoples to strip during auction.
One woman’s father had forced her to strip naked during bath time as a child. He would then take photos of her for his pleasure. This memory came flooding back as correctional officers required her to strip naked and bend over in front of a camera for strip searches.
Another young woman had been sexually assaulted just days before her first arrest. With the stitches in her private areas still healing, she was forced to strip and bend at the waist in front of strangers.
People described their anger, embarrassment, sadness, rage, suicidal ideation, dissociative coping, and more as a result of being strip searched. Many cried while recounting these terrible memories of having their privacy invaded in such an intimate way. One woman even recounted how she will still wake up screaming from nightmares about being back in prison.
Evidently, the memories of strip searches continue to harm people long after they have been released from prison or jail. Even decades later, people are still able to recount the feeling of strangers’ eyes or hands on their naked body and their powerlessness in these moments. These memories extend the punishment that incarceration supplies, even after one’s release.
And, for what?
It is unclear what success, if any, strip searches actually have with finding contraband. Many people who shared their stories with Stop Solitary CT attested that they never had a strip search that resulted in discovered contraband, even if they did have an object concealed.
Further, many people who were formerly incarcerated divulged that it is in fact not incarcerated people who bring most of the contraband into the facilities, but the correctional officers – those that have access to the world outside of the concrete walls and barbed wire fences. Yet, these correctional officers are not subject to strip searches to check for contraband.
Thus, if strip searching practices are truly in place as a means to reveal contraband, then one would imagine that this practice should be reconsidered upon evidence that other methods could find concealed objects. More so, any resistance people have to exploring other efficacious or less invasive methods clearly indicates that strip searches actually primarily intend to serve as a form of punishment intended to degrade and dehumanize incarcerated people.
While there may be numerous paths forward, Stop Solitary CT hopes that carceral facilities will invest in and increase the use of body scanning technologies to both reduce the rampant sexual violence in prisons and jails while simultaneously ensuring these facilities are secure environments. Additionally, if strip searches are deemed necessary, correctional officers should document all searches including information about the basis of the search, the gender of both the officer and the incarcerated person, and the results of the search.
Katherine Hill is a member of the Stop Solitary CT steering committee.