Judge: Strip search violates inmates' rights

CHICAGO Strip searches are common-place in jails, but if an inmate goes to court and the charges against him are dropped, or he is acquitted, should he be compelled to undergo a strip search back at the jail before he's set free?

A class action lawsuit- representing thousands of former Cook County Jail inmates argued that strip searching inmates before their release is unconstitutional, and a judge has now agreed.

Quentin Bullock was arrested in July of 2002 charged with the armed robbery of a White Castle restaurant. After 18 months in the Cook County Jail for a crime he says he did not commit, a judge found Bullock not guilty. He was to be freed, but before his release from the jail he was strip searched with a large group of inmates.

If the judge said the man is innocent, treat me like an innocent man. Don't hold me," said Quentin Bullock.

Bullock is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit contending that the County has no business, nor right to strip search male inmates once they've been acquitted or charges against them dropped.

"They're still doing this on a nightly basis involving 100 to 150 men- all of whom have been found innocent. They're brought back to the jail, put with 50-60 other inmates, told to bend and squat," said Tom Morrissey, Bullock attorney.

Roughly a decade ago a federal court judge in Chicago ruled that strip searching female inmates once they'd been cleared of charges was unconstitutional. But for male inmates, the practice has continued.

The sheriff's office contends that among the prisoners who are cleared of charges in one case, nearly half have other cases against them, and because there are so many inmates coming back from court each day, it would be an administrative and security nightmare to break them into strip-search and non-strip search groups.

Judge Elaine Bucklo however was unconvinced ruling that the blanket strip search policy of male discharges violates the fourth amendment. That ruling sets the stage for a trial on financial damages for thousands of former inmates strip searched before their release from jail.

"We're asking for damages in the millions of dollars," said Morrissey.

The 1998 case that led to the end of strip searching female inmates before their jail release cost the county - and therefore taxpayers - nearly $7 million in an out-of-court settlement.

This case involves an inmate population nearly ten times larger, and at least the potential for a much larger financial verdict down the road.

The sheriff's office, in a statement, says it disagrees with Judge Bucklo's decision, and will be asking her to reconsider. If she does not, her ruling will be appealed.

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