The exterior front of Cheshire Correctional Facility during the day time. The building has a red-like color and has several floors. Windows are seen from the outside.
Cheshire Correctional Institution. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

House lawmakers on Tuesday passed a watered-down version of a bill that initially sought to end routine strip searches in Connecticut’s prisons and jails, sending the revised legislation to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk for his signature.

Senate Bill 1196 passed the House on a 125-18 vote, with eight people absent, after unanimous approval among the Senate’s 36 legislators earlier this month. 

The bill requires that when the Department of Correction transfers a person from one correctional facility to another, their immediate family members and the victims of the crime they committed will receive notification.

And while an earlier version of the legislation would have raised the standard for correctional officers to perform strip searches on incarcerated people from reasonable suspicion to probable cause that an individual has contraband, the altered bill requires the DOC to solicit bids, by Jan. 1 of next year, to obtain body scanning machines that would be used to conduct full-body X-ray screenings — similar to the technology used in airports. 

The measure would also require the agency’s commissioner, Angel Quiros, to submit to the legislature a report by Feb. 1 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. 

Changes to the bill, which were made prior to its advancement out of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee in March, left prison reform advocates unsettled about what would keep happening to people behind bars while officials essentially conducted a study that other states have already done. During a public hearing, some described strip searches as one of the “most humiliating and intrusive allowances” that occur in correctional facilities. 

In response to “the emotional public hearing testimony the Judiciary Committee heard about the overuse of strip searches in our state prisons, and while certainly we would like to see strip searches be put to an absolute minimum, this bill moves, I believe, in that direction,” Rep. Steven Stafstron, D-Bridgeport and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said on Tuesday. 

Correctional officials and employees have defended strip searches as a deterrent for slowing the spread of drugs and weapons in prisons, and some lawmakers on Tuesday vocalized opposition to severe limitations — though one, Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, incorrectly stated that the original bill would have “banned strip searches” in their entirety. Aside from raising the standard for when strip searches were conducted, it would have required correctional officers to submit to their supervisor a document outlining the necessity for a strip search and get approval to proceed. 

Fishbein, the top House Republican on the Judiciary Committee, held that correctional officers need the ability to protect themselves as well as the people in the facilities.

“There is utilization here that at least presently may be appropriate,” Fishbein said. “I think it’s very important that when somebody is incarcerated, we’re going to make them go through this process so that we are protecting of their health. So I do rise in support of this study and to come back to us with perhaps some future legislation.”

Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford, said he was in “strong objection” to the legislation, partly because he feels it would create an unsafe work environment for staff. He also claimed that the legislature is overstepping boundaries by not relying on DOC officials to determine if implementing body scan technology is “in the best interest of safety and security.”

“I understand the semantics of it,” said Vail, a former correctional officer, about strip searches. “Unfortunately, it’s a necessary thing when you go there, for safety, security.” 

However, by passing the bill, the state would merely gather more information on body scanning technology — not mandate the agency to implement it, which would require additional funding. Further, Quiros has expressed interest in the technology. And no lawmakers on Tuesday mentioned that correctional officers, on multiple occasions, have been charged with bringing contraband into the state’s facilities. 

Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven and a proponent of the original legislation, said that she was disappointed that the legislature has decided to not address strip searches while the technology undergoes further evaluation. 

“A lot of the people that go into this system are already traumatized,” Porter said. “The fact that we’re not just doing this with adults, but we’re actually subjecting children to strip searches as well … completely goes against the grain of what I taught my children when I raised them about people viewing your body and touching your body.”

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 can also extend to minors who are incarcerated. 

During the public hearing earlier this year, Stafstrom 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.

Jaden is CT Mirror's justice reporter. He was previously a summer reporting fellow at The Texas Tribune and interned at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. He received a bachelor's degree in electronic media from Texas State University and a master's degree in investigative journalism from the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.