Teens' suit cites strip-search shame

The strip-searches, says a 15-year-old girl who spent 17 days in Sacramento County's juvenile hall, were all too frequent. There was one search when she was booked into the institution in 2002, and another less than an hour later, when she was sent to her housing unit. Twice, she went to court and was strip-searched when she returned. After her twice-weekly visits with her parents, she was searched in groups with other girls.

“I'd have to bend over and squat, and cough," said the girl, who was being held on a misdemeanor charge of running away from home while on probation. "It was humiliating. That's my body I'm showing to other human beings.”

Sacramento County Probation Department officials say they conduct the searches to ensure the safety of other juveniles and officers. They say state law allows them to conduct strip-searches of anyone charged with a felony as well as inmates charged with misdemeanor crimes involving violence, drugs or weapons. Officials throughout the state say they also strip-search most minors coming into their institutions because juveniles do, occasionally, try to smuggle drugs, guns and other contraband in their undergarments or elsewhere. But the strip-searches of the Sacramento girl, as well as those of two other teenagers here, have prompted a federal lawsuit that could force officials statewide to rethink juvenile search policies.

While there are no federal policies specifying when juvenile inmates can be strip-searched, case law has established some parameters, including a requirement that felonies and misdemeanor charges be considered equally. Attorney Mark Merin, who filed the lawsuit last month on behalf of three minors, said the ruling means only juveniles charged with violence or drug-related felonies can be searched. He said federal law requires institutions to balance the need for a particular search against the intrusion of personal rights.

“Let's take the law out of the picture for a minute and just think about it,” said Merin, who won a $15 million class-action settlement on behalf of adults who were strip-searched illegally in the Sacramento County jail. “You have juveniles, minors, in a system that is supposed to be different from the criminal justice system. We're supposed to be relating to them in some compassionate way,” he said. “And in Sacramento, pretty much the first thing that happens to them is that they're stripped.”

Gary Wion, the state Board of Corrections investigator who inspects Sacramento's juvenile hall and institutions in 10 other counties, said he requires administrators to comply with only the state law, which allows some minors to be searched by officials of the same gender. But Wion recommends they seek guidance from their county attorneys on the federal rulings.

“We make sure that counties are aware that there is federal case law out there, but each county comes up with its own policies,” Wion said.

The result is a wide variety of procedures throughout the state. In Kern County, probation officials say they don't strip-search wards in their juvenile hall at all. Youths are patted down for weapons or drugs when they are booked, and a probation officer watches them change out of street clothes, but “there's no bending over. No squatting and coughing,” said Assistant Chief Probation Officer Terry Fleming. “It's not because it's unpleasant,” he said. “We have not found a real necessity to do it.”

In San Mateo County, all juveniles charged with felonies undergo visual body-cavity searches, but searching misdemeanor arrestees requires a documented reason, said Delores Nnam, a probation manager. In Orange County, where chronic overcrowding means only those charged with felonies are booked into juvenile hall, every ward is strip-searched during booking and after family visits. But there are no group searches. “We are very sensitive to the fact that kids' body image is paramount to them, and they get embarrassed easily,” said Tom Wright, a chief deputy probation officer. “We would never line up a group of kids and say, 'OK, strip.' Everything is done in private.”

In Sacramento, Assistant Chief Probation Officer Suzanne Collins said the potential for security breaches in the aging, chronically overcrowded facility — there were 391 wards in the 261-bed juvenile hall this summer — has prompted officials to adopt strict search procedures. Wion, the Board of Corrections inspector, said Sacramento County officials are considered to be on the “cutting edge” of most juvenile institutional policies and that, from his experience, the facility is well-run. He said that most of the children in juvenile institutions are repeat offenders who have achieved some criminal sophistication, or they would be cited and sent home. Those children, he said, may need to be searched.

“Some are (unsophisticated children), but by and large these are criminal offenders we're talking about, and probation's job is to protect the children in their care,” Wion said. “When drugs and weapons get passed around in a (juvenile hall) general population, bad things can happen.”

Collins said her officers are taught to be compassionate. “We tell (new officers) to remember how they would want their kids treated if they came into our institution,” she said. But one 13-year-old girl, who was released last week after spending 24 days in Sacramento County's juvenile hall, said she can't forget the strip-searches. The girl, who begins 8th grade Tuesday, was arrested in early August for stealing more than $400 worth of coats from a Macy's store, a felony. She said she was searched during booking, again when she got to her dorm 10 minutes later, and after every visit to the nurse or when she left her dormitory. After family visits, girls were strip-searched in groups, she said. She said she never got used to the humiliating experience of revealing her body to probation officers and her fellow wards.

“The group searches are the worst because you've got to expose yourself to other girls,” she said. “And it's humiliating. You know the girls are talking about people all day. Some of the girls will stare at you. ... I heard one girl say (someone) had (a nice) body.” Since her release, the girl is much quieter and less certain of herself, according to her aunt, who is furious about her treatment. “She was violated a million times while she was there, for a stupid shoplifting,” said the aunt, a state worker. “She's a child. She's never been to juvenile hall before. She's never been arrested before.”

Also furious is the father of a 15-year-old boy who was arrested in June for elder abuse after using his grandfather's credit card to order an Australian bong online. The father, who called police to report the theft thinking a day or two in juvenile hall would shock his son into better behavior, now regrets his decision. “I thought it would be an eye-opening experience for him to have some of his liberties taken away,” said the boy's father. “But it's probably done more damage than good.”

Mareva Brown
8 September 2004

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