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Groups Protest Pat Searches of Female Inmates

A renewed policy at Valley State is ripe for abuse by male guards, advocates say.

October 15, 2003|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Inmates at a California women's prison are being subjected to inappropriate pat searches by male guards, a coalition of advocacy groups charged Tuesday.

In a letter to Corrections Director Edward S. Alameida, the groups demanded that officials of the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla halt the newly instituted practice, saying the searches amount to "sexual abuse and molestation" of female inmates.

"It's imperative that this new pat search procedure be stopped immediately to avoid further harassment" of women at California prisons, the letter from four advocacy groups said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said Alameida had not seen the letter and would have no immediate response. However, she added that the random searches have been standard procedure at other women's prisons and are necessary for the security of the institutions.

"This is a basic search to alert staff to the possession of weapons or other serious contraband," the spokeswoman, Margot Bach, said.

Although inmates may be searched at any time or place within the prison, Bach said, they are most often checked when returning from work assignments.

"We have inmates working in areas where there are tools," she said, "so we need to search them to make sure they are not taking screwdrivers or nails."

Bach said the policy permitting random, pat searches of inmates is in place systemwide. At Valley State, however, the practice from 1998 until last month excluded searches of the crotch and breast areas.

The policy of limiting pat searches was ordered five years ago by then-Warden Gail Lewis after Valley State came under scrutiny from Amnesty International and other human rights groups amid charges of sexual abuse and the use of excessive force by correctional staff, Bach said.

In 1999, the prison drew more notoriety after the chief medical officer told ABC's "Nightline" that his staff gave pelvic exams to women inmates complaining of unrelated symptoms because "it's the only male contact they get." The officer was reassigned to a desk job in Sacramento.

Last month, Valley State's new warden decided it was time to bring the prison into compliance with the search policy used at other lockups, Bach said. The change was ordered in part because of confusion among new correctional officers trained to conduct the full body search at the academy, Bach said.

According to the department's operations manual, a guard standing behind an inmate searches the prisoner "from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet, including shoes, all pockets, seams and personal effects."

Bach said that includes using the back of the hand to search the crotch and breast areas.

A prison spokesman, Lt. Tony Martinez, said there are 315 male officers and 103 female guards at Valley State, which houses about 3,700 inmates. Searches of clothed female inmates, he said, are routinely conducted by male officers. Searches of unclothed prisoners must be conducted by a guard of the same gender, Bach said.

Martinez acknowledged that the shift in policy had generated some "surprise" among inmates. "Any time there is a change," he said, "we get complaints."

In a statement included in Tuesday's letter to Alameida, women prisoners at Valley State called the more thorough searches "an open invitation to allow male staff officers to violate the female inmate while having her in a submissive hold."

A spokeswoman for the advocacy group California Prison Focus said the organization has received a stream of complaints about the more thorough searches, which many inmates consider "traumatic."

"Many of these women have been abused in their past," spokeswoman Judy Greenspan said, "and when they are searched like this, it feels very invasive and offensive."

Michael Cooley, a resident of Yuba City whose wife is incarcerated at Valley State, is among some family members who have complained about the change.

"I'm upset about it. When I visit my wife, I don't get to touch her," Cooley said. "I also think it pays diminishing returns to the state. Those women who want to smuggle something are going to find a way to do it, so what this really does is penalize everybody else."

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