Jury sides with inmates in strip search suit

August 13, 2009 8:40:48 PM PDT
A federal jury says the sheriff's department illegally searched hundreds of thousands of inmates. The case is the largest-ever class action lawsuit regarding strip searches of inmates at Cook County Jail.

The federal jury in this case ruled the strip searches of about 500,000 inmates violated their due process because it amounts to punishment before a trial, that they are unreasonable and discriminated against men because women do not have to go through the same process. Several inmates who were subjected to the searches call them inhumane.

Shortly after they arrive at the Cook County Jail inmates for years have undergone strip searches to make sure they are not trying to smuggle weapons or other contraband into the jail. Authorities consider it a matter of security. But former inmates say the way they conducted the strip searches in a crowded filthy hallway with a group of 80 naked men standing together is inhumane.

"We were strip searched shoulder to shoulder naked. Butt to butt naked. I felt like a description of cattle being led to the slaughter," said Allen Gorman, former inmate.

Attorneys say many of the inmates were locked up and simply were unable to post bond. Others were there for minor, non-violent crimes. All were treated the same way.

"We're still human. On thing in jail, they tried to take that away from you," said Tracy Wilburn, former inmate.

Attorneys argued the case before a jury for a week and a half presenting 24 inmates who described the conditions and their experience in much the same way.

"The evidence at the trial showed that guards would carry that abuse much further using sexually degrading language constantly during the search," said Mike Kanovitz, plaintiff's attorney.

Attorneys estimate 500,000 inmates were subjected to the searches between February of 2007 and March of 2009. They are encouraging them to join the class action suit. Jurors will have to decide what, if anything, to award them for their experience. A spokesperson for the sheriff's department however says they plan to appeal and is defending the practice saying: "We believe the jail's correctional officers and staff acted appropriately and did not violate anyone's constitutional rights in conducting searches for weapons or contraband." Plaintiff's attorneys disagree.

"There's no valid appeal here," said Kanovitz.

The sheriff's department says they now use a scanning device to search most inmates. But every jail and prison in the country uses strip searches to some degree. They say the last time they lost a case involving strip search they had to pay an average of $90 to each plaintiff. The attorneys say they expect the figure in this case could be closer to $1,000 which would amount to half a billion dollars.


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