Women sue over forced cavity searches for visitors to Rikers Island

Procedure at New York's Rikers Island prison is for visitors to be subjected to a pat-down search, but women who visit their loved ones are suing the New York Department of Corrections because guards there subject them to illegal, violent, humiliating strip and cavity searches, sometimes holding them down while forcibly penetrating them with their fingers.

Visitors are routinely forced to show their vulvas to guards and remove their tampons to "prove they are menstruating" and one woman had a guard forcefully shove her tampon so far into her body that she couldn't remove it.

The New York Department of Corrections has previously settled multiple lawsuits for improper strip-searches of arrestees, paying $50M in one case and $33M in another. The lawyers representing the Rikers visitors say that the humiliating searches they are subjected to are so consistent and routine that they represent a kind of shadow-policy that guards must be trained in, in violation of official DoC policy.

At least 27 women are suing the DOC over Rikers searches and searches at other New York jails and prisons.

Some women say they were searched in front of their children while visiting the children's fathers. A frequent outcome of these searches is for women to stop visiting altogether.

On August 20, 2016, Onoria Veras traveled to Rikers to visit her fiancé. When she arrived at the Visit Control Building, according to her notice of claim, officers brought her to the bathroom to be searched. Veras said she tried to refuse and asked to leave but was threated with arrest and confiscation of identification. An unidentified officer then "pulled down Claimant's pants and put her hand in-between Claimant's legs and into her buttocks," Veras's notice of claims states. "Claimant was asked what was in her underwear and she told C.O. DOE it was a panty liner. C.O. DOE then moved the panties aside and put her hand over Claimant's vagina." Afterward, Veras said, she was so upset that "she went straight to the bus to return home, foregoing her visit."

Figman has trouble attributing the invasive searches to bad apples among correction officers. "It's obviously going on in a systematic way because I have multiple claims against individual correctional officers and the way that the women describe the search conducted has a lot of similarities," he explained. "It's almost like the correctional officers are being trained to do something that is way outside of department protocol."

According to Matthew Brinckerhoff, an attorney who represented the class members in two previous strip-search class-actions against the DOC, "It is unquestionable in my mind that it would be unconstitutional and violate the Fourth Amendment to have a policy of strip-searching people who are visiting."

While the Supreme Court determined in 2012 that people arrested for minor infractions could be legally strip-searched under the Constitution, reasonable suspicion to strip-search a visitor would require specific, individualized evidence. Brinckerhoff laid out a theoretical scenario in which subjecting a visitor to an invasive search might be legal: "Perhaps if you had confiscated a letter where the visitor had said, 'I will be smuggling in a gun, or something that could be used as a weapon, or drugs of some sort, and I will be inserting them into my body.'" Even then, he said, the search would have to be conducted by a medical professional. "A corrections officer can't just take it upon him or herself to manually probe someone with their hands. That would never be appropriate, under any circumstance."

Women Visiting New York City Jails Describe a Pattern of Invasive, Humiliating Strip Searches
[Raven Rakia/The Intercept]

(Image: Min Liu)