An effort to end routine strip searches in Connecticut’s correctional facilities is unlikely to succeed this year as lawmakers have instead opted to gather information on what it would take to implement body scanning technology in the jails and prisons.
The legislature’s Judiciary Committee unanimously voted Thursday to advance a revised version of Senate Bill 1196 to the House and Senate for consideration, as opposed to the initial proposal which would have raised the standard for correctional officers to perform strip searches on incarcerated people from reasonable suspicion to probable cause.
S.B. 1196’s new language would instead require the Department of Correction, which oversees the jails and prisons, to submit a proposal to the state for obtaining body scanning machines that would be used to conduct full-body X-ray screenings on incarcerated people.
It would also require the agency’s commissioner, Angel Quiros, to submit to the legislature a report on the estimated costs of implementing the technology, the number of machines required, information concerning potential health risks with the technology and the capability of the technology to replace strip searches.
Quiros would have to submit that report before or on Feb. 1 of next year.
While the revised legislation would likely create a pathway for lawmakers to place limits on strip searches at some point in the coming years, a delayed timeline goes against the wishes of incarcerated people and community organizers who have been calling for severe limitations to what some view as one of the “most humiliating and intrusive allowances that occur in prison facilities.”
“I’m just so frustrated and aggravated sitting here listening to them make excuses for why they’re doing what they’re doing,” said Barbara Fair of Stop Solitary CT, an organization advocating for humane treatment of people behind bars, a champion of the bill. “And then to try to pretend like you’re actually doing something to help incarcerated people, that’s just so infuriating and frustrating for me.”
But Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said the revised bill was the best chance at making progress on strip search policy during the current legislative session.
Following a public hearing on the legislation earlier this month, he said he engaged with the legislative branch, Gov. Ned Lamont’s office and the DOC, and found there likely wasn’t enough support to get the bill signed into law.
Quiros, twice nominated to his position by the governor, has said he opposes severe limitations to the strip searches. Correctional officials and employees have defended the practice as a deterrent for slowing the spread of drugs and weapons in correctional facilities.
“I recognize that some of the people who wanted that bill are going to be upset because they want the bill they had. But I didn’t want to gamble with the protections for these individuals,” Winfield, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said. “What I see is I spearheaded the effort to get us a forward motion because I did not believe, having the conversation I had, that the bill actually was going to cross the finish line.”
Winfield also said he wanted to avoid going through what legislators and advocates experienced with the PROTECT Act, which in 2021 sought to limit how much time a person could spend in solitary confinement. The legislature passed the bill, but it was vetoed by Lamont. After negotiations between the DOC and Stop Solitary CT to find middle ground, another version of the bill passed in 2022.
The revised strip search legislation, Winfield said, gets the state closer to body scan technology, which seemed to garner some bipartisan support during the public hearing. Lawmakers also plan to meet with the DOC at the end of the legislative session to discuss potential revisions to the agency’s strip search directive, which outlines when the practice can be used.
Until then, the current policy will remain in place.
Fair said she now plans to engage with lawyers about a possible class action lawsuit on behalf of people she says have been subject to unlawful and degrading strip searches.
“We can’t get Connecticut to do the right thing. … I’m not gonna give up on it,” Fair said. “We’re not gonna get anywhere in Connecticut. It’s such a segregated state, and they don’t care enough about what happens to us.”
On Thursday, Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, noted that an officer was charged in 2021 with bringing marijuana and a cellphone into Cheshire Correctional Institution, making the point that correctional officers, tasked with maintaining safety and security, aren’t subject to routine strip searches.
Porter told lawmakers she was concerned the revised legislation leaves people subject to more inhumane treatment while incarcerated. She said she’s heard from people who have been subject to body cavity searches by correctional officers and not medical professionals, which would violate the DOC’s strip search policy.
“My concern is that between now and the end of the year, these practices are still in place,” Porter said. “I can’t imagine going to my GYN doctor and having a receptionist do my physical exam. And that is pretty much what has been described to me, so I’m hoping that these issues get addressed sooner than later. And I look forward to the conversations outside of this committee that we will have to get this right.”
Currently, the DOC carries out strip searches during an incarcerated person’s entry or return to a facility, transfers within a facility or out of state, and when entering or leaving a maximum security facility or housing unit.
The agency can also do so when a person has participated in a “significant incident” during their incarceration, when submitting a specimen for urinalysis and at the conclusion of contact visits.
Officials need “reasonable suspicion” to conduct a search, which also extends to incarcerated minors.
Although it wasn’t outlined in the original bill, the idea of installing body scan technology piqued the interest of some lawmakers and Quiros during the public hearing earlier this month. Strip searches would then only occur when there’s probable cause, aligning with advocates’ hopes, or when someone refuses to go through the scanner.
At the hearing, Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, and co-chair of the judiciary, cited a 2017 report from Washington state, which, in part, says the greatest advantage of body scanning technology is “the ability to discover contraband hidden” under someone’s clothes without the need for a strip search. The report says the amount of radiation exposure from the technology is “well within” federal guidelines and noted the price of one body scanner at a local county jail was $225,000.
On Thursday, the revised bill making reference to the technology passed in the Judiciary Committee with 37 affirmative votes and no opposition.
“I think moving in a direction where we study the issue of utilizing, essentially, metal detectors or detectors that can assess what is in a person’s body is really important,” Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, and a ranking member of the judiciary, told lawmakers prior to the vote. “I don’t think anybody would disagree that strip search is demeaning and dehumanizing. And yet, we have to balance that with the need to make sure there’s no contraband allowed into the facilities.”
Fair, who says she feels that lawmakers conceded too easily to the revisions, said the problem with strip searches is about human compassion and, judging by lawmakers’ actions Thursday, “they don’t have it.”
“It’s frustrating, but I know I’m not a person to give up,” she said. “So I just look at the next strategies to make it happen, because I’m not going to think about people suffering every single day and the state is OK with it. … I don’t take that kind of attitude. So it’s just the beginning of another fight.”