Fighting the 'Labia Lift'
by Krystal Voss

 activism  guard-prisoner-relations  personal-narrative  prison-life  prison-industrial-complex  sexual-harassment

There I was, fully nude in front of the stocky, intimidating, masculine female officer. I attempted to put my clothes back on after a daily strip search as a condition of my work place.

"There is a new procedure" she interrupted, "You have to spread your labia." The officer grinned; the first time I'd ever seen her smile, in the year or more she had worked at Denver Women's Correctional Facility.

My jaw dropped and I must have looked at her like she was insane.

"You know what that is?" She asked me.

"Yes, I know what that is." I replied and I wondered if she was just coming on to me, or if it was a real procedure. Nothing was posted. But then, the new warden had a habit of changing procedure on a whim, without any notice. (We heard it even bothered his staff.) Reluctantly, I opened my most intimate part to this complete (apparently) lesbian stranger and her obvious enjoyment of the display. Now, I'm not modest or any kind of prude, yet, this new procedure disturbed me to the very core.

All our workers were in a panic. The news spread like wildfire. I helped circulate sample grievances, citing Administrative Regulations, Colorado Revised Statutes, Constitutional Amendments and the women added their personal anguish between the lines. Many families were told not to visit, due to searches after visits. Nobody wanted to do a porn pose for any officer. It felt like sexual harassment. In the coming weeks, so many grievances were filed on this procedure, a general statement was posted and every one came back with the same generic posted answer.

After I filed my step one grievance, a captain called me to the block office in the unit to chat. She and I argued civilly about the demeanor the officer used with me.

"No staff likes to do this procedure." She insisted.

I raised body fluid and sanitation issues.

"If you just open your labia farther back from the opening; just pinch the skin and pull open slightly, you won't get fluid on your fingers. This is not an invasive procedure," she countered.

What about menstrual times? What about women who have fluid all over? The different arguments spun in my mind and tumbled out of my mouth.

Eventually, the captain turned the questioning to me.

How long had I been incarcerated? (Five plus years.) How many grievances had Ifiled during that time? (Less than five.) On what? (Religious rights, medical diets, legal mail and this.) How many write-ups during this time? (None.)

"Well, that is impressive." She said with a haughty air. I felt demeaned, yet, thanked her for her time and asserted I'd continue my grievances.

Fortunately, the change in policy of daily strip searches at the print shop became random, in line with every other work crew. Yet, that does not stop a particular officer from choosing me every time she enters the shop to strip some and pat search the rest. She likes to direct us to prop our foot on a toilet, after the full "proper" search to hold open our labia and pause, as she bends down, often with her face less than a foot away, to examine.

"What is she looking for?!" My enraged brain screams silently, the whole time spread and naked, alone with authority.

"This isn't my favorite part either." She says quasi-sympathetically, while handing my clothing back, opened, like she's dressing a child.

"It is not necessary, and I'm filing a complaint with the Feds. We'll let a judge decide," I coldly replied.

"Oh!" She answered, shock registering on her face.

I stormed out of the shop, dreading the next time that officer walks in to do security detail. It will happen all over again.

The stories are much worse. The whole thing began in a restricted privileges/discipline unit. It was reported to me by women living there at the time, one woman was threatened with pepper spray until compliance. Stories of hidden pills, needles, syringes circulated and changed when staff justified why it began; why it was necessary to prevent anything being held in a piece of body tissue lacking musculature.

Women could not sleep and experienced flashbacks from sexual abuse. Mental health providers brought a flood of concerns to the Administration. It fell upon closed ears.

Step after step of the grievance process was denied. Then, someone collected letters from a dozen of us for a journalist friend. Nothing happened for a few months. I thought it was a dead end. Then, in July 2010, media attention brought letters from a prominent attorney at the Washington DC ACLU. The women were quietly rallied to write him their personal stories. This has lead to a "cease and desist" letter to the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC). from the A.C.L.U. As of writing this, no change has come. My prisoner's complaint is nearly ready. A couple women and I are filing on behalf of all the women in the facility. I want a permanent injunction to stop the labia lift. Stop the trauma to these women, stop the icky feeling of abuse that comes from even the most removed demeanors of some officers during the searches, and stop this madness!

The most concerning facet of this particular spot of my incarceration journey is the sexual connotation of authority getting too close to our body parts. The "Prison Rape Elimination Act" was put in place to prevent sexual activity between inmates and officers. (Yet, the hotline established does a victim no good in the middle of the night, when phones are shut off!) Inmates are constantly being threatened with "PREA write ups" if caught hugging a friend or even touching an arm or hand in conversation. The Code of Penal Discipline handbook and Administrative Regulations are full of admonishments against any kind of sexual contact or activity, implied or direct. How fair is it that two of my friends were taken to the hole for one brushing fingertips against the other’s neck in Medline? Removing an errant hair or an insect in a public place versus non-medical personnel examining our clitorises in private seems a little imbalanced.

The facility had gone to great lengths to separate "couples". All the medium unit pods were issued separate library and gym time. Joint law library appointments were scrutinized for so called "custody issues". If two who were seen together often entered a bathroom at the same time, an officer was likely to bust in, with her keys silenced. The cameras posted at each bathroom door and day room inaccurately told all. This kind of harassment met my roommate and her friend. The officer found them brushing their teeth. They were in innocent company, with coffee pots and oral hygiene products, when under the guise of security, the "labia lift" entered the scene!  The double standard is disgusting!

Then, even more concerning, is the newest C.O.P.D. addition of "false reporting", as a class I offense. One could lose honor housing, incentive jobs, hobby privileges, 90 days good time and spend time in the hole if a report is determined to be false. How can an inmate prove what happens, alone, naked, with an officer? Whose word will they believe? What "proof" do we have? This is pushing a lot of women into silence. After my experience with the captain denying my validity on any arguments, who actually cares that this happens?

I will be getting out in the next year. I pray I never come back. How can I leave behind women who have much more time on a sentence, without doing everything I can to stop this? Will anyone stop this?