The Supreme Court's Decision on Strip Searches Will Make Jails More Dangerous

The practice of strip searching all jail inmates, just because they are detainees, is a violation of basic human rights and unnecessary. It is also a recipe for sexual abuse.
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The practice of strip searching all jail inmates, just because they are detainees, is a violation of basic human rights and unnecessary. It is also a recipe for sexual abuse. Sadly, earlier this month, five U.S. Supreme Court justices, a bare majority, found that policies that require strip searches of all inmates upon entry at a jail to be constitutional. In so doing, the Court has helped pave the way for more -- not less -- dangerous jails.

In Florence v. Burlington County, Albert Florence challenged the constitutionality of two strip searches he was forced to undergo in 2005 after he was wrongly arrested due to a records error. "After that all happened, I cried, and I hadn't cried since I was a child. I just had so much emotion from being scared, humiliated," Mr. Florence said at a press conference.

Here's what we know about the link between strip searches and sexual abuse. Just Detention International (JDI) receives thousands of letters every year from survivors of sexual violence behind bars. They describe horrific abuse, often at the hands of staff. In countless cases, the abuse began during a search. Their stories are borne out by Department of Justice data. According to the government's own studies, more than 40 percent of survivors of staff sexual abuse in detention were abused during a strip or pat down search. Many victims of staff abuse, including a shocking 30 percent of men, were abused within the first 24 hours of entering jail -- precisely the timeframe under consideration in Mr. Florence's case.

The overall rates of sexual abuse in U.S. detention facilities are at crisis levels. According to the Department of Justice, at least 216,600 adults and children are subjected to sexual abuse in prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities annually. (This figure does not include incidents in immigration detention centers, police lock-ups, or community corrections facilities.) Since the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), the federal government has spent considerable time and resources laying a foundation for ending this human rights crisis. One of the key principles underpinning PREA is that prisons and jails are unable to police themselves when it comes to ending sexual abuse in their facilities.

In denying Mr. Florence's claim, the Court, a body to which we've granted supreme authority to uphold constitutional limitations on state power, failed us. The majority decision relies upon and strengthens the mistaken belief that the only way to create secure facilities is to defer to jail administrators. While the regulations mandated by PREA incorporate the views of corrections professionals, they also draw on empirical data, the expertise of advocates, and the experiences of survivors of abuse. In Florence v. Burlington County, the majority decision dismissed a balanced approach. As a result, many more of the 13 million people who enter jail annually will be vulnerable to sexual abuse.

The Court does offer Mr. Florence and advocates the well-worn advice to seek an end to these searches through state legislatures. The sheer audacity of this decision may lead to viable campaigns in a number of states where such searches are currently allowed. Given the ways in which expansive strip search policies can lead to abuse, this is one instance where it may be possible for people of good conscience to persuade their elected officials to do the Court's job for it.

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