'Humiliating': Female inmates at St. Clair County Jail plan to sue over strip searches

News-DemocratJanuary 18, 2014 

Leticia Jackson and Teresa Hale talk about being strip searched at the St. Clair County Jail.

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Three women said guards performed multiple strip searches as a method to humiliate them while they were inmates at St. Clair County Jail. County officials deny the complaints and say such searches are strictly conducted according to state standards.

The women, Leticia Jackson of Belleville, Sandra Russell of O'Fallon and Teresa Hale of Belleville, are seeking a lawyer to represent them in a lawsuit against the county.

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said jail officials follow state standards regarding strip searches and no inmates are humiliated by guards.

"We're doing everything according to state standards and doing it with respect," Watson said. "Of course we don't like doing it anymore than they do. We do it for the safety of jail staff and inmates. We don't want somebody sneaking a shank in here and see an inmate stabbed and killed. We don't want staff getting killed."

Jackson, 33, said she was called derogatory names by a guard when strip searched at the jail while serving time for a misdemeanor conviction of driving under the influence in November 2012. Two guards in particular repeatedly strip searched the inmates during their shifts, according to Jackson.

"I know it was basically to bring me down a notch, to humiliate me," Jackson said. "It was to make fun of me, a power trip that they are basically God to me."

Jackson said one of the two guards taunted her during the searches because Jackson's father volunteered as a minister for inmates by calling her a "church girl" and asking "Why don't you pray now?"

"They made fun of me being a Christian," Jackson said. "That's why I feel like I was being raped, being violated."

County Jail Superintendent Phillip McLaurin said inmates are searched in a group when a large number of inmates are received at the same time. Other strip searches are performed individually. In Madison County, strip searches at the jail are conducted individually in a private shower area.

"Normally those searches come around based on fact that an inmate threatened suicide or other inmates identified the individual as having contraband in their possession," McLaurin said. "Nobody enjoys being strip searched. No matter whether it is with one person or 10 people, you feel uncomfortable."

What's the issue?

An attorney with the state's American Civil Liberties Union believes the three female inmates might have a case.

At issue is state standards and court rulings restricting some strip search practices to preserve the privacy and dignity of the inmate, according to Ben Wolfe, the associate legal director with the ACLU.

The county's practice of performing strip searches of an inmate in front of other inmates "raises very serious questions both under state law and under the Constitution whether it was appropriate," Wolfe said.

Watson said strip searches are performed solely to ensure inmates do not possess drugs or weapons.

"With all the overcrowding, the number of inmates we bring through the jail in a year's time requires our people to be very professional to keep this under control," Watson said. "This place is run professionally. Nobody is out there wanting to humiliate somebody. They are doing their job because they have to get on to the next thing. They don't have time to aggravate inmates."

State officials believe the jail can house 418 inmates. On Thursday, the jail housed 537 inmates. A referendum in March will ask voters to pay for an expansion of the jail through a sales tax increase.

The complaints of the former inmates come on the heels of a federal lawsuit recently filed against the county from 29 male inmates at the St. Clair County Jail. Those inmates, representing themselves, seek $10 million alleging strip searches conducted in front of other inmates and guards violated their constitutional rights.

Russell, 48, said she was searched multiple times in front of other inmates as a method to humiliate her. Russell was serving 15 weekends related to a conviction of reckless discharge of a firearm.

The searches were performed with up to four other inmates present and none of the searches produced material banned in the jail, Russell said.

Russell said she understands the need to search inmates "once in a blue moon" but not repeated searches in a short time. She said jail guards once searched her and other inmates in the evening, then in the middle of the night, and again in the morning.

Hale, 42, said she felt violated when strip searched in front of other inmates while serving a 3-day sentence in jail for a misdemeanor conviction of driving under the influence.

"At the time I was thinking this is normal because it was the first time I had been in jail," Hale said of the searches. "Who was I to question anything? ... If the guards did something they should not be doing, they should be reprimanded just as I was punished when I did something I shouldn't have done."

Russell and Jackson said they both filed written complaints with guards at the jail, but never received a response. County officials never received any complaints regarding the searches, according to the county's response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the News-Democrat.

"Nothing was ever done from the complaints," Russell said. "Whatever they (the guards) wanted to do, the (supervisors) just let them do it. It's just unbelievable."

Watson said county officials have never received a written complaint from inmates regarding strip searches. Written complaints are sent to the proper person, Watson said, adding many complaints are "frivolous."

What are the standards?

A federal judge ruled in December that strip searching prisoners as a group was constitutional as long as the search was not intended to humiliate the prisoners.

The ruling, from U.S. District Judge Phil Gilbert, dismissed a federal lawsuit from Timothy Headrick who alleged strip searches at St. Clair County Jail violated his constitutional rights. Headrick did not allege the intent of the searches was to humiliate him. He is not one of the 29 inmates in the current legal battle with the county.

The Illinois Department of Corrections has set standards that require searches "be performed in an area that ensures privacy and dignity of the individual." Searches should also not expose inmates "to the view of others who are not specifically not involved in the process."

Department of Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer declined to comment on whether department officials believed St. Clair County was adhering to the prescribed standards.

Wolfe, the attorney with ACLU, said those standards ensure the privacy of inmates is upheld.

"A serious case can be made if exposed to lots of other inmates and humiliated in that context," Wolfe said.

A class action lawsuit against the Cook County Jail in 2011 ended with a $55 million settlement for inmates strip searched prior to being convicted of a crime. Some of the inmates in Cook County faced misdemeanor charges.

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

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

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