Inmates say strip searches at St. Clair County Jail violated their rights

News-DemocratDecember 30, 2013 

More than two dozen inmates at the St. Clair County Jail have filed a federal lawsuit alleging group strip searches violated their constitutional rights.

The 29 inmates allege they received multiple body cavity searches in front of other inmates and guards. The inmates believe the searches violated state law because they should have been conducted in private.

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson could not immediately be reached for comment.

The inmates seek $10 million alleging the searches were "cruel and unusual punishment" under the U.S. Constitution. The inmates filed the suit Friday, Dec. 27 in East St. Louis.

"Strip searches are unconstitutional unless the guard or officer has a reasonable suspicion that the detainee has a concealed weapon or contraband of some sort, which no detainee turned out to have any contraband," the inmates allege in the lawsuit.

Madison County Jail Superintendent Gary Bost said strip searches are conducted there one inmate at a time in the Madison County Jail. A jail guard of the same sex searches the inmate in a shower area separated from other inmates.

State law restricts strip searches to be performed by the same sex as the arrested person and "on premises where the search cannot be observed by persons not physically conducting the search."

A separate federal lawsuit against the St. Clair County Jail that mirrors the allegations of the 29 inmates was dismissed on Thursday, Dec. 26.

Timothy Headrick alleged a strip search performed in front of other prisoners was unconstitutional. The searched was conducted when Headrick was transferred from a state prison to the St. Clair County Jail in October.

U.S. District Judge Phil Gilbert ruled strip searching prisoners as a group does not violate the Constitution as long as the search was not intended to humiliate the prisoners.

"Without a doubt, being required to undergo a strip search is disagreeable," Gilbert states in the ruling. "Nevertheless, in balancing (Headrick's) constitutional rights with the jail's security concerns ... the court concludes that no constitutional violation occurred."

Similar lawsuits have been filed against other county jails in Illinois.

In March 2011, a class action lawsuit nine inmates brought against the Cook County Jail ended in a $55 million settlement.

The inmates alleged a 5-year policy of performing a strip search or body cavity search of all new detainees, some facing misdemeanor charges, in the Cook County Jail was unconstitutional. Male detainees received a body cavity search in a group lined up against a wall, similar to the allegations of the inmates at the St. Clair County Jail.

An estimated 250,000 people who were strip searched in that time received between $500 and $1,000 in the settlement.

State law prohibits such searches on inmates arrested for traffic or misdemeanor offenses, except offenses involving weapons or drugs, "unless there is a reasonable belief that the individual is concealing a weapon or controlled substance."

About 85 percent of the inmates at the St. Clair County Jail are facing felonious violent or sex-related crimes, according to county officials. Some inmates have been convicted and are awaiting transfer to state prisons.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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