Cross Gender Pat Searches Halted!

by Karen Shain
After a month of intense activity by women prisoners, advocates and the international human rights community, the warden at Valley State Prison for Women has agreed to halt cross gender pat searching.
This is a tremendous victory and is a clear example of how people on the inside and outside, working together, can stop illegal activities. Here is how it happened.
In late September, visitors to the prison began hearing about a serious change in prison policy–male guards were doing pat searches on female prisoners. Apparently guards had been shown a training video that demonstrated a pat search on the opposite sex. Male guards began to do the searches and women prisoners were outraged. They wrote to many organizations and sent out a press release, stating, in part, “This is an open invitation to allow male staff/officers to violate the female inmate while having her in a submissive hold. This is extreme, unless there has been probable cause, but now this will be a daily routine activity for all female inmates.”
On October 14th, four prisoners’ rights organizations–CCWP, California Prison Focus, Justice Now and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children–wrote a joint press release in support of the women inside. In the press release, we demanded that the “new pat search procedure be stopped immediately to avoid further harassment and sexual abuse of female prisoners by male guards in California state prisons.”
The very next day Warden Gloria Henry issued a memorandum stating, “Effective immediately, Male and Female staff will discontinue conducting clothed body searches that require any touching or grazing of the breast or crotch area…You are directed to resume searching techniques used prior to my memorandum dated September 10, 2003.”
On October 31, 2003, Amnesty International issued a statement about VSPW’s pat search policy. “Male guards should be barred from carrying out pat or strip searches of women prisoners and from routine access to women’s living areas. Such practices are open to abuse and violate fundamental rights to privacy and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment set out under international treaties. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR), which the USA has ratified.”
We applaud the efforts and leadership of prisoners inside who spearheaded this campaign to stop sexual assault on women prisoners. We must now be prepared to make sure this never happens again. Cross gender pat searching of prisoners should always be illegal, except in cases of emergency.