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Judge rules against taping female strip-searches

A federal judge has ruled that the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department violated the rights of female inmates by allowing male guards to videotape strip searches, saying the practice was degrading and “plainly unconstitutional.”

Correctional officials said male guards rarely filmed the searches, and averted their eyes as they did so. But in a 38-page decision, US District Judge Michael A. Ponsor wrote that even the nearby presence of a male guard during a search can be a “deeply humiliating experience.”

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“No inmate placed in such a vulnerable and exposed position should have to rely, or comfortably would rely, on the scrupulousness of an officer of the opposite sex turning his or her head as a safeguard to the inmate’s privacy and basic dignity,” Ponsor wrote. “Any other conclusion would defy human nature.”

The ruling stems from a 2011 federal class-action suit involving former and current inmates of the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center, an all-female facility in Chicopee. Howard Friedman, the lawyer for the former inmates, said lead plaintiff Debra Baggett was thrilled with the ruling and hoped it would bring an end to the policy.

“Many of the women have been sexually abused, and having a male guard present makes them very uncomfortable,” Friedman said. The sheriff’s office, he said, “couldn’t cite any other prisons with policies explicitly permitting male officers to tape women.”

In the complaint, Baggett and another former prisoner said they were repeatedly filmed while nude by male correction officers after being transferred to the jail’s segregation unit. The searches were conducted by women, but a male correction officer would record the procedure from just a few feet away, the complaint stated.

The lawsuit sought damages for emotional distress, Friedman said. The sheriff’s department had been unwilling to negotiate a settlement, he said.

‘No inmate . . . should have to rely, or comfortably would rely, on the scrupulousness of an officer of the opposite sex turning his or her head as a safeguard to the inmate’s privacy and basic dignity,’

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Theresa Finnegan, staff attorney for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, said male guards record the searches from outside the private cell where the searches are conducted, and that the practice drew no grievances before the lawsuit. Officers are directed to record the inmate only from the neck up. If a male officer was ever seen viewing the search, “they would have been walked out immediately,” Finnegan said.

“There hasn’t been a shred of credible evidence of any correctional officer ever violating our detailed guidelines and protections,” Finnegan said.

The searches are conducted when an inmate is moved out of the general population and into a more secure area of the facility. In almost all cases, female officers record the searches, which are taped “for the safety and security of the inmates,” Finnegan said.

“The video recording creates an indisputable record of what happened during the move to higher security,” she said. “It’s the most accurate account of what occurred.”

Ponsor said the inmates are fully aware when a male guard is recording the search, and that the knowledge that the guard is required to look away does little to “minimize the extreme level of exposure she experiences.” The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department is likely to appeal, Finnegan said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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