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Males’ taping of female strip-searches spurs lawsuit

By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / September 15, 2011

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Two women are filing a federal class-action lawsuit against the managers of a county jail near Springfield today, charging they are among hundreds of prisoners who were videotaped naked by male guards over the past four years.

The former prisoners of the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee say that the videotaping by men violated their civil rights and humiliated them.

“If the camera were recording from the ceiling, it wouldn’t be so upsetting,’’ said the women’s lawyer, Howard Friedman. “But having a guy standing there violates common decency. Even prisoners retain some basic human dignity.’’

The lawyer for Hampden Sheriff Michael Ashe said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on the specifics, but he defended the policy of videotaping strip-searches, saying it protects both the inmate and the guard from later claims of abuse.

“I can tell you that in my judgment I believe our search policies are lawful and serve legitimate purposes,’’ said Edward J. McDonough Jr., outside counsel for the Hampden Sheriff’s Department

The complaint, to be filed in federal court in Springfield, says two former prisoners, Debra Baggett and April Marlborough, were repeatedly videotaped nude by men after being transferred in shackles to the jail’s segregation unit - Baggett for mental health reasons, Marlborough for disciplinary reasons. Each time they were taken to the unit, they were forced to take off all their clothes and perform a series of movements to show that they had no weapons or drugs.

The strip-search itself was conducted by women. But just a few feet away, a male correction officer standing outside the cell recorded the 10- to 20-minute procedure.

Baggett said she got involved in the case to stop a practice that has prevented many women prisoners from seeking mental health treatment because they feared being stripped and videotaped before they could go to the segregation unit, which houses inmates with mental health problems.

“There are people like me who are very depressed and have harmed themselves rather than go through this quasi-rape situation,’’ she said. “This isn’t about suing somebody. This is about trying to make a change.’’

Baggett, 54, who served 1 1/2 years after pleading guilty to gun possession, described the procedure: “You have to put your hands on your head. They tell you to remove your clothes, and you are standing there totally naked. They tell you to turn around and the man is standing there with a camera.’’

Baggett estimates she was videotaped at least 10 times. “You feel very violated,’’ she said.

“It’s very voyeuristic . . .. And the videotape is there forever,’’ said Baggett, a disabled veteran, who is now living in a homeless shelter.

One inmate, who said that earlier in life she had been raped as her assailants videotaped the attack, became hysterical when the videotaping began and pleaded with the guard to stop, Baggett said.

The women decided to file the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages, after their lawyers were unable to persuade the Hampden Sheriff’s Department to end the practice.

McDonough defended the videotaping as “the best documentation as to the conduct of the inmate and the conduct of the officers. You have to strike a fair balance between the need for safety and security and the need to protect inmate privacy and dignity.’’

He said that the department tries to make sure a woman is operating the camera, but that sometimes that is not possible because women’s transfers to the segregation unit come at unexpected times.

“When there is an emergency or exigent circumstance, you can’t always guarantee you’ll have a 100 percent female staff,’’ he said. “You may have to have a male officer hold the camera.’’

McDonough added that he believed the women are videotaped only from the shoulders up.

In the 11-page complaint, the women’s lawyers, Friedman and David Milton, say that at least 20 years ago, the federal appeals court in Boston ruled that having a guard of the opposite sex view an inmate’s naked body violates the US Constitution except in emergencies. Other courts around the country have agreed, they wrote.

State regulations governing county jails require that strip-searches be conducted “in relative privacy with as much dignity as possible . . . by staff the same sex as the inmate,’’ the suit says.

Until 2010, the jail’s written policy said that if a male guard was operating the camera, he should turn around and operate the camera backward, over his shoulder, and record the woman only from the neck up.

But the male guards ignored the policy because it required them to “do the impossible,’’ the suit says. Instead, they faced inside the cell as they recorded the search.

After the women’s lawyers raised questions, the sheriff’s department changed the policy to say that the officer videotaping the women should also be female “unless impracticable.’’

Even so, the guards running the camera are almost always men, the suit alleges.

Friedman has a long history of battling law enforcement agencies over strip-searches.

In 2002, the City of Boston and the Suffolk sheriff agreed to pay $10 million to women prisoners Friedman represented after a federal judge ruled that the agencies had a policy that violated their rights. Women who were arrested were routinely strip-searched even before they were arraigned or authorities had determined whether there was probable cause.

Also in 2002, Friedman sued the state Department of Correction after an inmate at MCI-Framingham was strip-searched repeatedly in front of a window through which male employees could watch. The plaintiff settled the case for about $45,000 in damages and lawyers’ fees, Friedman said, and the state agreed to change its practice.

Friedman also won strip-search cases in Franklin County; Plymouth County, where women were illegally strip-searched at the Plymouth County lockup for women at the Marshfield police station; and York County, Maine.

Andrea Estes can be reached at