In 2011, 200 women serving sentences at the Lincoln Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois, woke one morning to a tactical team in riot gear, who rounded them up, handcuffed them, and herded them to the gymnasium. Eventually, the women were taken in groups of four to 10 to the adjoining beauty shop and bathroom, where they were told to take everything off—for what, they weren’t sure. That included menstrual products, so some women began to bleed onto the floor.
One by one, prisoners were forced to turn around, bend over, and spread their anal and vaginal cavities for inspection. The reason? A non-required training exercise for cadets.
“Dirty bitches,” said a correctional officer. Prisoners listened to a chorus of guards and cadets who called them “fucking disgusting,” told them they smelled “like death,” and taunted them with reminders that they “deserve[d] to be in here.” The bathroom’s door was kept open and the beauty shop’s walls were lined with mirrors, so male officers watched from the gym.
A federal court decided in July that the incident did not violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled 2-1 that, because the women did the touching themselves, their right to privacy was not violated.
Writing for the majority, Circuit Judge Frank H. Easterbrook, a Reagan appointee, reminded the plaintiffs that they “lack any legitimate expectation of privacy inside prison walls” as it pertains to their possessions and surroundings. They are, however, legally entitled to some discretion when it comes to their own bodies, though he cited precedent which holds that such privacy applies only to the interior of the body. As such, since the prisoners did the poking and prodding themselves, their Fourth Amendment rights remained intact, he said.
“Plaintiffs allege a visual inspection, not a physical intrusion,” he wrote. “They maintain that each inmate had to manipulate her own body but do not contend that the prison’s staff touched any inmate.”
U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee, an Obama appointee who serves on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, was asked to sit on the panel for the 7th Circuit. He subsequently dissented, writing that the majority’s stipulation fails to pass logical muster and is not supported by previous court decisions. The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the subject of strip searches as they relate to privacy rights, and the 7th Circuit “has taken various, sometimes inconsistent, tacks to answer this question,” claimed Lee.
Contrary to Easterbrook, he noted that there is precedent within the same circuit that supports the plaintiffs. Consider Sparks v. Stutler, in which the court ordered that involuntary catheterization violated the Fourth Amendment. And in Del Raine v. Williford, the 7th Circuit ruled a rectal probe conducted by a correctional officer crossed the line.
With those in mind, Lee argued that the only substantial difference is who is doing the manipulating since the end result is comparable. “It seems odd, however, to make the question of whether a prisoner has a reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment in the integrity of his or her intimate body cavities dependent on who it is that does the probing or penetrating,” he wrote. “The distinction between those cases and this one—in which inmates were ordered to probe their own body cavities and subject them to visual inspection—is difficult to discern.”