LINCOLN — A criminal justice reform group is disappointed by a ruling that the constitutional rights of female inmates were not violated during a 2011 strip-search incident at Lincoln Correctional Center.

"The word that keeps coming to mind is 'dehumanizing,'" said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based not-for-profit that monitors correctional facilities and advocates for reform.​

On Monday, Vollen-Katz said the association is not directly involved in the case but is disappointed by a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, based in Chicago, that inmates' limited right to privacy was superseded by the needs of correctional officers conducting a training exercise.

About 200 female inmates were subjected to a search the inmates later called "unsanitary, sexually invasive, degrading and dehumanizing."

The plaintiffs, six women searched during the incident, said in a court filing they were made to strip naked, including exposing their genitals, in rooms that were visible to male correctional officers, civilians and the public.

The women, the filing said, "were forced to stand barefoot on the bathroom floor, which was dirty with menstrual blood and other bodily fluids."

"The women on their menstrual cycles were told to take out their tampons... and not given tampons after," according to the filing. "They were forced to put their clothing back on with glib suggestions that they use toilet paper if necessary. Many of these women got blood on their legs, feet and clothes."

Vollen-Katz said the case "is the sort of thing (John Howard Association leaders) are definitely watching and taking note of with a lot of concern."

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"In a correctional setting there's obviously a difference in terms of what somebody's right to privacy might look like, and that is not wholly unreasonable in maintaining safety. ... But putting aside the legal question, looking at the facts of this case, this is deeply troubling," she said. "If there is a legitimate goal in training staff to do these kind of searches, there has to be a less invasive, more respectful way to do it."

The Illinois Department of Corrections declined to comment on the ruling.

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"The Illinois Department of Corrections cannot comment on pending litigation," said Lindsey Hess, media administrator for IDOC.

The case has drawn national attention and could lead to proceedings before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Washington Post, American Bar Association and Chicago Tribune Editorial Board wrote about the case, with the Tribune saying "maybe a training exercise of this sort goes too far," and the Post noting Los Angeles County the same day settled a similar case for $53 million, its largest settlement ever.

"For more than 20 years it has been established in this circuit that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to visual inspections of prisoners," wrote judges Frank Easterbrook and Daniel Manion in the 2-1 decision. "It is best to leave the law of the circuit alone, unless and until the justices (of the U.S. Supreme Court) suggest that it needs to change."

In his dissent, Judge John Lee said "the peculiar circumstances of this case raise the question of whether the time has come for this court to reconsider its broader position with respect to the application of the Fourth Amendment to inmates' bodies generally."

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Contact Derek Beigh at (309) 820-3234. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_beigh


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