Illegal Strip Searches at the Cook County Jail
court-advocacy guard-prisoner-relations sexual-violence
Lorrie Q. had never been in jail before. In the receiving area at Cook County Jail a few female guards corralled her and a group of other women into one of several bullpens. The small room had a bathroom stall without a door and hard benches that were fastened down. Spilled drinks and cigarette butts dirtied the floor. The air reeked of body odor, excrement, and stale smoke.
One of the guards stepped inside the bullpen and ordered the women to take off their clothes. The other guards observed through a glass door. Lorrie headed toward the back, hoping to hide behind the other inmates, but the guard made them stand in staggered rows. Lorrie would have stood out anyway. She was the only white woman in the group, and she weighed nearly 300 pounds.
A 34-year-old dispatcher, she couldn’t believe that a traffic stop had landed her in jail. The previous night, January 20, 1996, she’d been on her way to a restaurant when a police officer pulled her over for driving with expired plates. The officer instructed her to follow his squad car to a nearby police station. She thought it strange that he didn’t issue her a ticket on the spot, but she did as she was told.
At the station the officer handcuffed her, saying there was an outstanding warrant for her arrest dating back to 1992. This was news to her. In ‘92, she’d injured an elderly pedestrian while driving on a suspended license, but she’d pleaded guilty in traffic court. She thought she’d taken care of everything long ago, including the $700 in fines, and she assumed that the police would easily confirm this and let her go. But the police said only a judge could release her now, and since it was a Saturday, and traffic court was closed, she spent the night in the lockup. The next morning police transported her in a paddy wagon to Cook County Jail. Traffic court was closed Sundays too.
Now, in the bullpen, Lorrie disrobed along with the other inmates, shaking out each article of clothing as instructed. She hesitated momentarily before stepping out of her underwear, embarrassed by the day-old sanitary napkin stuck to them. As if to shut out her surroundings, she turned her eyes to the ceiling and noticed a security camera trained on the bullpen. Was she on display somewhere? she wondered. Was somebody taping this?
The guard barked commands. Ruffle your hair. Lift your right breast. Lift your left breast. Lorrie closely watched the inmates up front, glad that at least they weren’t watching her. As a child, she’d suffered cruel taunts about her weight. Her sixth-grade classmates called her Ziggy the Elephant, after a resident at the Brookfield Zoo. When she tried to fit in, to make herself pretty, they mocked her. Ziggy the Elephant got a perm, they said.
“You in the back,” the guard shouted at Lorrie, “lift up that flab.” Heads turned as Lorrie raised the folds of her stomach.
The guard then told the women to face the back of the bullpen, and Lorrie found herself smack in front of the group for the final commands—bending over, spreading her buttocks apart, and squatting and coughing several times. In court the next morning the judge couldn’t find any record that Lorrie had paid her fines. He continued the case, telling her to bring either receipts or money to the next hearing. Then he released her from jail on her own recognizance. She was finally going home. Or so she thought.
At approximately 12:30 PM Lorrie was sent back to the jail’s receiving area to be processed out. Other women coming back from court crowded into one of the bullpens with her. In groups of about ten they were taken across the hall into another bullpen and strip-searched. When the guards told Lorrie it was her turn, she thought there’d been a mistake. “I’m like, wait a minute,” she recalls. “Why do I have to go through a strip search when I was just released? I’m supposed to go home. It was back through the same routine. But now there were all these people coming back from court, like 50 in the room. Now you’ve got an audience.”
A couple of hours later Lorrie found herself back in the living quarters. She stared off into space, wondering why she hadn’t been released, while the other inmates ate dinner, watched TV, chatted, and played cards. When a guard announced lights out, she told him she wasn’t supposed to go to bed, she was supposed to go home. She remembers his answer clearly: “When you’re going to be let go, we’ll let you know.”
Lorrie says she stayed awake in her cell, afraid she’d sleep through the call for her release. Hours passed before someone shouted her name and unlocked her cell door. Then she changed into her street clothes and signed a piece of paper. Someone handed her a CTA token, change for a transfer, and her house keys.
Jail logs say she was released at 1:05 AM, but Lorrie remembers it being more like 2 before she was free. After two hours, two busses, and a five-block walk in the chilly winter darkness, she arrived home.
Lorrie says she couldn’t sleep. She cried uncontrollably and vomited twice. Later that morning she called her boss to say she couldn’t come to work. Feeling “disgustingly dirty,” she took a long hot bath, then spent the rest of the morning going through the alphabetical listings in the Yellow Pages, calling attorneys. She didn’t get past B before one of them referred her to Tom Morrissey.
A civil-rights attorney who works out of a small office in a southwest-side strip mall, Tom Morrissey is a thorn in the Cook County sheriff’s side. He’s known, not fondly, by Sheriff Michael Sheahan’s staff as someone who supports himself representing former inmates with gripes against the jail. Morrissey considers the jail a wellspring of civil rights violations. He’s sued the sheriff’s office more than 30 times since Sheahan was elected in 1990, claiming that his clients have been subjected to various forms of mistreatment in jail. Like the sheriffs who preceded him, Sheahan is dogged by lawsuits, many of them frivolous. But Morrissey doesn’t sue him because inmates dislike their food—and he’s won most of the cases that have been resolved (CHECK).
Lorrie’s story intrigued him. It encompassed elements of two class-action suits he had pending against the sheriff’s office. In the first one, Hvorcik v. Sheahan, filed in 1992, Morrissey claimed that the sheriff’s computer database contained outdated and invalid warrants, which had resulted in innocent people being wrongfully arrested—sometimes repeatedly. (The suit would eventually force the sheriff’s office to effectively dismantle its system, leaving the business of tracking warrants to the state and city police and the FBI.)
Many of Morrissey’s clients told him that after a judge apologized for the bogus warrants and dismissed their cases, they were detained for ten hours or more while the corrections staff processed the paperwork. Morrissey believed the sheriff had a duty to expeditiously release inmates whose cases had been dismissed. In 1994 he filed Watson v. Sheahan, claiming that the sheriff had effectively reincarcerated people whose release had been ordered by a judge. (The sheriff’s office would finally settle in June 1997, agreeing to speed up release and pay $90 in damages to each of Morrissey’s 5,270 clients.)
Then in 1995 a Watson client named Robin Wells mentioned to Morrissey that she’d been strip-searched prior to her release. Morrissey understood the reason for strip-searching her on the way into jail, but he didn’t understand the reason for strip-searching her on the way out.
After talking to a few of his other Watson clients, Morrissey began to suspect that only female inmates underwent strip searches prior to their release. He sued the sheriff’s office on Wells’s behalf, claiming she’d been subjected to a discriminatory and unreasonable search. In March 1996 he filed a similar suit for Lorrie. While the cases were pending, he continued questioning his female Watson clients. Every one of them told him they’d been strip-searched after returning from court. The men, for the most part, told him they hadn’t been.
Chicago had a long history of inappropriately strip-searching women. From 1952 to 1979 Chicago police officers routinely pulled women off the streets for minor traffic offenses and put them through invasive strip searches, while merely patting down men they stopped under similar circumstances.
A TV news station exposed the discriminatory policy in 1979, and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city. The state legislature enacted a law later that year prohibiting police from strip-searching people arrested for minor offenses without reason to believe they were concealing weapons or contraband.
According to private civil-rights attorney Edward Stein, who represented at least 15 women who sued for damages, the Police Department first denied that the strip searches ever happened, then defended its policy in court, claiming that the searches were reasonable because women had more orifices than men and because they were known to hide drugs and small weapons in their bras. A federal judge ruled the policy unconstitutional. The city appealed and lost. (Ironically, Morrissey, recently out of law school, was working in the city’s civil rights department, and he assisted more seasoned attorneys on a few separate strip-search cases, arguing that the harm was not as severe as the women claimed.)
Juries awarded large damages. The Police Department’s strip-search policy wound up costing the city about $3 million.
Despite the price Chicago paid for its strip-search policy, the police in a nearby suburb, Calumet City, continued to strip-search women arrested for traffic offenses and misdemeanors such as shoplifting and underage drinking. In 1987 hundreds of women sued—some saying that male officers had conducted the searches, lifting their breasts and probing their genitals with ungloved fingers. Together the women won about $6 million in damages.
Wondering why Sheriff Sheahan’s office hadn’t learned from the mistakes of the Chicago and Calumet City police departments, Morrissey began pulling together a class-action suit, while pursuing the individual strip-search cases. He asked an attorney named Robert Farley to work on the case with him.
Farley also wondered how discriminatory strip searches could be happening again in 1996. “When society becomes aware of something and it’s universally condemned, you don’t do it anymore,” he said. “Like forced sterilizations.”
Though Farley and Morrissey believed that the Cook County Department of Corrections discriminated against all women returning from court-because men in similar situations weren’t all strip searched—they decided to represent only women whose cases had been dismissed. That way they would have a second argument: that the strip searches were unreasonable. “It’s outrageous that you could essentially win your case—be found not guilty or have the charge dismissed—and then have to go through a dehumanizing strip-search procedure,” Farley said.
The first step was to find someone willing to be the named plaintiff. To ask a judge to consider whether the policy was illegal, the named plaintiff had to be someone in jail who was likely to be released and who was therefore facing a strip search. Morrissey found 22-year-old Kenya Gary through her lawyer. She was awaiting trial for killing her ex-boyfriend, the father of two of her three children. She talked openly talked about the indignities suffered by female inmates, and her attorney believed she stood a good chance of being acquitted.
Kenya Gary was charged with first-degree murder in the spring of 1996. Her boyfriend had had a history of stalking and abusing her. Two weeks before the killing she’d reported him to the police for striking her with a two-by-four. During the argument that led to his death he punched her. Gary stabbed him defensively and only once. Afterward she called for help, then sat by his side, pressing a towel to his wound to stop the bleeding.
Gary had gone to court many times, and she anticipated many more court dates before her trial. She didn’t appreciate having a strip search, which she considered “nasty” and “degrading,” after each one of them. In court, “you’re always surrounded,” she said. “You’re never out of anyone’s sight. So what is the purpose of being stripped down?”
Gary believed that some of the worst treatment of inmates occurred during the strip searches: “A lot of things go on that no one knows about. There was one time they sprayed Lysol on this girl, saying she smelled. Sometimes they don’t lock the doors, and the male officers walk in. It’s happened numerous times. It’s not a mistake.”
In November 1996 Morrissey filed Gary v. Sheahan. The suit asked the judge to ban routine strip searches of female inmates with court-ordered discharges and to award each plaintiff $50,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages.
The sheriff’s attorneys maintained that both men and women were routinely strip-searched after court dates, so there was no discrimination. The practice, they claimed, was reasonable and necessary to ensure the security of the jail and the safety of inmates, corrections staff, and even the public. (The sheriff declined to comment publicly on the case while it was pending).
Morrissey figured the key to winning the case was proving that men didn’t regularly endure strip searches. The evidence he needed, beyond the word of former inmates, was inside the jail.
The Cook County Department of Corrections required guards to keep written records of all body searches. Judge David Coar ordered the sheriff’s office to grant Morrissey access to the jail for the purpose of inspecting those records and deposing administrators and subordinates.
According to Morrissey, Sheahan’s attorneys wouldn’t commit to any dates. So Morrissey wrote the sheriff’s attorneys a brief letter telling them when he’d be available and asking for their cooperation. The response made it clear that giving Morrissey access to the jail was not a priority.
“Each of us has numerous other cases pending,” Michael Jacobs and David Meyerson wrote back. “Accordingly, it is…inconceivable that you can expect two attorneys to set aside two entire days for these depositions on little more than a week’s notice.” The lawsuit was less than a month old, they said. They promised to arrange a visit to the jail but said they needed time. They were swamped by “full caseloads,” and Morrissey only distracted them with his “myriad of correspondence,” which forced them to “expend valuable resources preparing responses as opposed to actually working on substantive issues in the scores of other cases we are responsible for defending, including nearly ten of your cases.”
The letter was personal in parts. “It is extremely unprofessional for you to believe that your lawsuit is more important or takes precedence over the hundreds of lawsuits pending against the sheriff in both state and federal court….It is clear that your tactics are meant to harass.”
The dispute came before Judge Coar, who read aloud from the letter, then suggested that the sheriff’s attorneys brush up on the federal rules regarding civil procedure. Needs such as Morrissey’s, the judge said, did take “precedence over other matters.” He added that the sheriff’s attorneys also had to accommodate Morrissey quickly, “not after the hundreds of cases pending against the sheriff are resolved.” Shortly thereafter, the sheriff’s attorneys found time in their schedules to meet Morrissey and Farley at the jail.
On any given day in 1997, the 11 sprawling divisions of the Cook County Jail housed about 9,000 inmates; 95 percent of them were awaiting trial and either didn’t have the option to bond out or couldn’t afford to.
Innocent or not, people in jail don’t have the same privacy rights as free citizens. They’re considered a threat to security, and the law permits measures to be taken to reduce that threat. Every new inmate at the Cook County Jail, for instance, underwent a body-cavity search as well as a strip search. The Cook County Department of Corrections also required its guards to conduct occasional sweeps of cells; to do random pat-down searches of inmates returning from such in-house places as the infirmary, visiting area, and recreation room; and to do a routine strip search of all “court returns”—male and female.
These searches turned up contraband a couple of times a month, according to Bill Cunningham, one of the sheriff’s spokesmen. The most commonly found items were drugs and crudely formed knives.
Each day 1,000 to 1,500 inmates went to court. Afterward they returned to the jail through the receiving area with a written judicial notice stating the disposition of their case and their next court date—if they had one. But inmates whose cases had been discharged weren’t just free to leave. Administrative workers first had to conduct background checks to see if they had other cases pending or warrants against them from other jurisdictions.
From his work on Watson, Morrissey believed that guards didn’t distinguish between inmates whose cases had been dismissed and those whose hadn’t. All went back to their living quarters after court. But what happened in the interim, he learned, seemed to differ for males and females.
That difference was insignificant and simply a result of space constraints, the sheriff’s attorneys told Morrissey and Farley as they toured the receiving area. The women’s side of the area had eight bullpens, most capable of holding about 50 inmates. This was more than enough space, the attorneys said, to strip-search the 80 to 100 women who went to court each day. But because there were only ten bullpens for the daily barrage of 1,000 or more male court returns, guards couldn’t properly strip-search them in the receiving area. So the male inmates underwent strip searches back in the housing divisions. The difference between procedures for males and females, the attorneys insisted, lay only in where they were strip-searched.
But when Morrissey and Farley later went through the logbooks in which guards had documented body searches, they saw that men underwent only sporadic strip searches after court. “Each superintendent of the 11 divisions seemed to set up his own rules regarding what type of searches, if any, would be done for prisoners returning from court,” Morrissey recalls. “For the most part we found that males got out of the strip search.” They filed a motion asking the judge to ban the sheriff’s office from routinely strip-searching women prior to their release while Kenya v. Sheahan was pending.
To rule on the matter, Judge Coar needed to hear evidence from both sides and then weigh the harm strip searches caused women against the harm that not strip-searching them could cause the jail. The judge held a preliminary injunction hearing on the afternoon of March 13, 1997.
Morrissey’s strategy was threefold: to show that the strip searches caused women harm, to refute the claim that guards also routinely strip-searched men after court, and to prove that the security of the jail wouldn’t be compromised by refraining from routinely strip-searching women whose cases had been dismissed.
Proving harm was easy. The Seventh Circuit appellate court, in its ruling on the Chicago case in 1983, had described strip searches as “dehumanizing,” “humiliating,” and “repulsive.” Testimony from only one former female inmate would suffice. Morrissey called Lorrie Q. to the stand.
Her appearance had changed considerably since the weekend she spent in jail. The shame she’d felt during the strip search had lingered, and three months after her release she’d had a surgeon staple shut most of her stomach. So far she’d lost about 50 pounds. She wept on the stand as she described the search.
Next Morrissey called to the stand seven men who’d been locked up at various times between 1991 and 1997. One by one they testified that after leaving court they had not been strip-searched in the receiving area or back in their divisions. Then Morrissey questioned a corrections officer who admitted that he was “quite sure” he didn’t strip-search all male court returns.
The defense countered with an officer who’d worked in three male divisions and said he believed court returns were routinely strip-searched in accordance with the jail’s written policy. Another officer testified that he personally strip-searched men returning from court without exception.
As Morrissey understood it, the only justification for strip-searching a woman whose case had been dismissed was that when guards sent her back to the housing division she would be mingling with the general population prior to her release. He figured if women were allowed to remain in the receiving area there would be no reason to strip-search them. When Morrissey asked the assistant executive director of the jail, John Maul, why women who were discharged were sent back to the housing divisions, Maul explained that they needed to retrieve their personal propertyï¿½items they’d left in the cells and clothing that corrections staff had put in storage. (The Department of Corrections stored valuables, such as money and jewelry, in property cages near the receiving area.)
Morrissey asked Maul if guards or clerical workers could bring inmates’ clothing to them in the receiving area.
“They could pick up the clothing,” Maul said, “but they could not pick up the stuff that’s in her cell.”
Many of Morrissey’s clients had spent only a few days in jail. They hadn’t accumulated any items. If a woman decided to abandon her personal items, Morrissey asked, “would she still have to go back to [the housing division] under your orders?”
Maul said she wouldn’t and that it would be possible to discharge women straight from the receiving area.
Ernesto Velasco—who’d worked in the jail for 22 years, rising through the ranks to become executive director—testified last. Morrissey established that the lawsuit had made Velasco aware that guards weren’t routinely strip-searching men. “And what did you do once that was brought to your attention?” Morrissey asked.
Velasco replied that he’d held a staff meeting with the superintendents of the housing divisions “to make sure that the policies of the department were being carried out” and to tell them that “it was my intention to make sure that every detainee that came back from court got strip-searched.”
After Velasco stepped down, Judge Coar said, “The facts in this case are not particularly complicated. It’s clear, crystal clear in this case, that for a period dating back to at least 1991 female inmates of the Cook County Department of Corrections returning from court have been routinely strip-searched. It’s also crystal clear that there has been no such uniform strip-searching of male inmates going back to 1991 and as recently as two weeks ago.”
He went on. “No inmate should be strip-searched unless there is a good and valid reason for doing so. To the extent that there was no good and valid reason for searching male inmates, it’s difficult to understand what the good and valid reason was for…conducting strip searches of female inmates returning from court.”
The judge found that the discrepancy caused female inmates “irreparable harm,” and he banned routine strip searches of them prior to their release. Strip searches, he said, would be permitted only if the women chose to go back into their housing division to retrieve their personal items, since allowing inmates who’d been exposed to the public to mingle with inmates back in the jail was “a legitimate concern.” Those who did not choose to go back, he said, would remain in the receiving area while someone brought them their clothing.
The sheriff’s attorneys appealed the ruling and filed a motion asking the judge to stay the order until the appeal could be heard. They claimed that the order was ambiguous, that it impeded the discharge process for female inmates, and that it “significantly disrupted” jail operations.
“When apprised of the fact that the men were not being strip-searched, the director of the jail had a meeting,” the judge said at a hearing on the motion. “No testimony at the meeting said you are compromising the security at the jail, you are putting the lives of the guards at risk. It was a matter-of-fact kind of concern, like, you know, this is something we need to take a look at. No specific directions were forthcoming from that meeting. No orders to the supervisors at the individual units that this must stop and that males must be strip-searched immediately and heads will roll if that doesn’t happen.”
The judge denied the sheriff’s request to stay the order. “I find the motion outrageous,” he said. “Absolutely outrageous.”
After the first line of defense against the discrimination charge failed—when they could no longer claim that guards routinely strip-searched men too—the sheriff’s attorneys set out to justify the unequal treatment. They argued that the law permitted different treatment of male and female inmates as long as they presented different security concerns. A sworn affidavit from a sergeant stated that it was easier to pass contraband to females than to males in Cook County courthouses because there weren’t always isolated holding cells for females. As a result, female inmates sometimes used public restrooms and were handcuffed to chairs or rails in insecure places such as witness rooms, hallways, or administrative offices, where they could easily have contact with outsiders.
Morrissey and Farley thought this argument was nonsense. Jail officials had already admitted before the judge that the possibility of acquiring contraband in court existed for inmates of both sexes, since both had visits with relatives and attorneys. And since nine times more men than women went to court each day, Morrissey and Farley figured, it was doubtful that women posed a greater security risk.
In reality, guards rarely recovered weapons or contraband from any court returns. Bill Cunningham of the sheriff’s press office said that was because the strip searches acted as a deterrent. Approximately 260,000 strip searches were conducted on court returns in 1997, and guards had documented only 24 attempts to smuggle contraband. The jail didn’t break down its statistics by gender, but Cunningham said that from what he’d heard men and women were equally likely to try to smuggle contraband.
In another affidavit, Dennis Andrews, chief of operations in the receiving area, claimed that 90 percent of the women released in the month and a half since the judge’s ruling had willingly submitted to a strip search.
Morrissey and Farley were suspicious of the statistic, even though they knew that Kenya Gary, who had recently been acquitted of murder, had grudgingly agreed to one last strip search. Yet unlike most of the women at the jail, she’d been locked up for a year and had accumulated belongings she wanted to retrieve, such as shoes, night clothes, photographs of her children, books, and letters.
In response to Judge Coar’s order to stop routine strip searches, Andrews had written a memo instructing the corrections staff not to strip-search female inmates prior to their release unless they asked to go back to their housing division. He’d also prepared two forms the women could choose between. The first said that an inmate’s clothing would be brought to her in the receiving area but that it was her responsibility to retrieve any personal property left in her cell at a later time; she also had to agree not to hold the department responsible for any items left in her cell. The second form simply said that the inmate would go back into the housing division and retrieve her clothing and personal items herself. Neither form mentioned anything about a strip search.
Morrissey interpreted the failure to implement real change as deliberate defiance on the sheriff’s part, and in early June he and Farley asked the judge to hold the sheriff in contempt.
At contempt hearings in mid-June, 12 women released after the judge’s March order banning routine searches testified that they’d been unwillingly strip-searched prior to their release. Some said they’d signed a form but hadn’t known what it meant.
Operations chief Andrews told the judge that while he couldn’t be sure that “every day, every minute” guards were showing women both sets of request forms, he’d instructed them to do so. He also said that he’d seen some signatures on requests to remain in the receiving area. These signatures, the sheriff’s attorneys argued, proved that women had choices and that the sheriff had fully complied with the judge’s order. “The option is being given to return to general population or to remain in receiving,” Meyerson said. “That is being done. That’s what the order states.”
But Morrissey and Farley believed that this was a ridiculously narrow interpretation of the judge’s order. They argued that women needed to be specifically told that one option entailed a strip search and the other didn’t.
Meyerson told the judge that while some officers did go “above and beyond” their duties and had informed women of their “strip-search rights” out of “conscientiousness,” the order itself “did not indicate that this advising of rights was to be accomplished.”
A finding of contempt would have enabled Judge Coar to impose fines, appoint an interim official to run the jail, even lock up the sheriff. The hearings ended without word from the judge on how he might rule, but he did state, “Any order I issue with respect to the sheriff will have every i dotted, every t crossed….I will not leave it to reasonable interpretation again with respect to the sheriff.”
In September the judge ordered the sheriff to help Morrissey reach former and current inmates who might be eligible to join the lawsuit. The prospective pool included everyone released after November 1994, and Sheahan’s attorneys promptly provided Morrissey with the names of 11,000 former inmates.
Morrissey sent out letters notifying them about the lawsuit. He also gave the sheriff’s attorneys copies of a notice the judge had approved for posting in the jail, courthouses, and detention centers. But when one of Morrissey’s paralegals called Jacobs a few days later to arrange a time to inspect the placement of the notices, Jacobs informed her that they had yet to be posted and that the sheriff intended to place them in the jail only.
This time the judge summoned the sheriff to court to explain himself. The day before he was to appear, Sheahan sent a statement to the judge apologizing for not promptly posting Morrissey’s notices and saying he’d been told the judge’s order to post them contained “insufficient information.” Sheahan assured the judge that the notices had since been posted.
Morrissey immediately filed a response stating, “This is the second time that the Sheriff has sought to justify his noncompliance with an order entered by this Court by questioning the scope and clarity of an order.”
The next day Sheahan, flanked by attorneys, walked into Judge Coar’s courtroom for the first time. But he didn’t speak. One of his private defense attorneys, William Quinlan, told the judge that the problem had stemmed from miscommunication.
A newspaper later noted that the judge appeared to accept the sheriff’s apology but expressed concern that Sheahan was using “delaying tactics” and seemed to think he could pick and choose which court orders to obey.
Meanwhile droves of women were responding to Morrissey’s letter about the lawsuit. Morrissey and Farley were the legal minds behind the case, but one of their paralegals, Gina Watson, was the main person talking to the plaintiffs about their experiences, gauging the emotional impact of the strip searches, and helping determine which women might do well on the stand.
Watson talked to hundreds of women on the phone. Some were mistrustful and reserved, others forthcoming and graphic. Most of them expressed anger about what had happened and thanked Watson for listening. Over and over they said, “I thought nobody cared.”
At times, “I’ve just broken down after hearing them,” Watson said one day while working on the case.
“The idea of a woman standing in a roomful of strangers, being on her period, having a tampon ripped out of her, having to stand there bleeding all over herself, becoming so sick from the whole situation that she throws up all over herself—those kind of things, they stay with you.”
Watson heard over and over that if the inmates didn’t cough and squat just so during the strip searches, the guards forced them to do it again and again, even after they’d done it correctly. She heard repeatedly that male guards routinely passed by, as did male inmates in charge of cleaning the area. And she heard women say that it wasn’t unusual for female guards to make suggestive and lewd comments or gestures to the inmates while they were naked.
“When I first started hearing these things,” Watson said, “I thought, this is unbelievable. I just can’t understand that a system like this is allowed to continue.”
Watson interviewed many women who’d been released in the seven months after the judge banned routine strip searches—and based on their stories, she concluded that the ban had changed nothing at the jail. Even after the contempt hearings in June, a dozen women said they’d been strip-searched against their will and sent back to their cells even though they had no personal items to retrieve.
“I was raised with the idea that the law was obeyed and respected, that a judge had power, and what a judge said was to be followed,” Watson said. “The sheriff’s people don’t do that. Every time a judge has ordered something be done, they have not complied immediately.”
One of the women Watson interviewed was Stephanie D., a 35-year-old security guard with two children. One evening in October of 1997, she sat in a room at her workplace, her arms folded across her chest. She talked rapidly, stopping only to cry, as she recounted the events of July 12.
At the time, Stephanie’s life was coming together after a few trying years in which she’d split with her husband and placed her mother in a nursing home. She was dating again and beginning to let go of the guilt she felt about handing her mother over to strangers. She had a good job as a security guard and she’d recently won $750 playing the lottery.
July 12 was a Saturday, four months after Judge Coar had banned routine strip searches of female inmates at the jail. That afternoon, she was pulled over near 79th and Vincennes for running a red light. She’d made the mistake of leaving her driver’s license at home. The officer instructed her to follow the squad car to the station at 85th and Green, where a background check revealed an outstanding warrant for her arrest.
According to Stephanie, a misunderstanding with her children’s baby-sitter had led to a neglect charge in 1989. “Because I didn’t come back when I told the girl I would, she called the police,” Stephanie said. The police in turn called the Department of Children and Family Services. Stephanie said she had straightened everything out in neglect court but hadn’t known that she was wanted in criminal court as well, on a misdemeanor charge resulting from the same incident. Nor, she said, had she known that when she missed a hearing the judge had issued a warrant for contributing to the neglect of her children. Like Lorrie Q., Stephanie assumed that she would soon be let go. Instead, since it was a Saturday, she was transferred to the county jail. “I thought it was the inmates who would get me,” she said. “But it’s the guards who do it to you as far as abuse.”
In the receiving area Stephanie and other newcomers passed a group of male guards. Tears welled up as she recalled hearing one of them say, “I smell somebody’s rotten pussy. One of you hos’ pussy stinks.”
On Monday Stephanie went to court. The case was dismissed. “Just imagine, the judge tells you you’re free—and then you sit around for hours,” she said. “When they say, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ you think you’re leaving. But no.” She said she was never offered a form to sign. “‘Get over there and take your clothes off,’” she was told.
“There were maybe about 30 women. You got women who are on their period. It don’t matter. You lay your sanitary napkin down on the floor. Whoever was more physically attractive, like a younger girl, they’d be like, ‘Step up, I can’t see you.’ When the guard tells you to bend over, someone’s crack is right there in your face.
“I felt like I was a dirty dog. Like I was an animal. Like all my privacy, any kind of right as a woman, as a person, had been violated. I felt angry. I felt humiliated. I felt embarrassed for the older women.” Stephanie said people were sitting outside the bullpen and could see in through the glass. “It was like a freak show. Everybody wants to see titties. Then you’re smiled at a little bit, like, ‘I like what I saw.’ No one told you you had a right not to be strip-searched. They never tell you that you have a choice. If a judge ruled that that was not supposed to happen, it was not supposed to happen—whether I knew it or not.”
She said she was particularly surprised that female guards were abusive. “They were like, ‘Bitch, what you want with me?’ To be told ‘Sit down and shut up’ and ‘Get out of my face’ and ‘Didn’t I tell you to shut your ass up?’” There were guards who “look like your sister,” she said. “But if you look past the French roll and the pretty fingernails and you look in her face, there’s something real ugly in her eyes. It’s the I-am-not-your-friend look. I know they’re under stress, but you know what? I got stress too. But come on, when was the last time you told someone, ‘Bitch, I’ll break your neck’”?
Stephanie returned from court at about 3 PM but didn’t leave the jail until after midnight. On the way out, she said, “You go to this room and they stamp your papers and you get your property. I’m like, ‘You all can keep that.’ I just wanted to get outside.” Later that morning, she said, “I cried. I hugged my kids. I scrubbed and showered and cut my hair.”
Stephanie had become a security guard as a stepping-stone to working as a corrections officer and eventually as a police officer. But her experience in jail changed her plans to go into law enforcement. “I’m not one of them,” she said.
Stephanie joined the lawsuit against the sheriff in September, after receiving Morrissey’s letter about it. The sheriff had another contempt hearing the following month—this one for continuing with the strip searches despite the judge’s ban-and Stephanie agreed to testify at it.
A week before the contempt hearing, one of the sheriff’s attorneys, David Meyerson, told the judge that the sheriff didn’t fully understand the strip-search order and that he’d been waiting for “additional guidelines from the court.”
The judge did not seem pleased. “I don’t see how anybody who was at that [June contempt] hearing or who read that order could come away not understanding the basis upon which the order was entered,” he said.
“Judge Coar was sending us a very strong message: Get your house in order,” defense attorney John Kennedy later said.
After the hearing the jail brass immediately went to work devising new procedures to give female inmates awaiting release the opportunity for informed consent regarding the strip searches. The sheriff’s private attorneys filed legal papers arguing that the new procedures rendered the contempt petition moot.
On October 21, Stephanie came to court prepared to testify against the sheriff, as did two other former inmates who’d been released since June and said they hadn’t been given the opportunity to opt out of the strip search. But the judge, after reviewing the jail’s new procedures and consulting with the attorneys from both sides, canceled the hearing and met with the attorneys in his chambers. According to Morrissey, at that meeting the attorneys worked out the final details of the new strip-search procedures. Later that day they went into effect.
Jail staff began informing inmates with court-ordered discharges that they had choices—including the right to forgo the strip search. The staff posted a notice in the bullpens, in English and Spanish, informing women of their options. And they altered the request forms to clearly state that returning to the division entailed a strip search and remaining in the receiving area didn’t. The department also increased the receiving-area staff, adding a female sergeant to supervise the discharge procedure, an administrative clerk to process discharges, and an officer to assist women who chose to return to the division.
The Department of Corrections also began keeping records, including the date and time of each discharge, of whether the inmate chose to return to the division or remain in the receiving area, and the name of the officer on duty who advised her of her options when it came to strip searches.
One week later the department reported to Judge Coar that 86 of the 101 women released since the changes took effect had opted out of the strip search. Three and a half weeks later the department reported that it had eliminated 84 percent of strip searches of women about to be released. The judge commended the sheriff’s attorneys on the new procedures. “I think that really this gets at the heart of the problem,” he said.
It had taken seven months and a strict admonishment from the judge before the sheriff’s office had implemented the changes. But despite an impassioned argument by Farley that allowing a defendant to wait seven months to do “what he was supposed to do in the first place” would “indirectly reward someone for improper behavior,” the judge decided not to hold the sheriff in contempt.
In August of 1998, Judge Coar ruled that strip searches at the jail had been unreasonable and discriminatory, in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments, clearing the way for former female inmates to sue for damages.
Morrissey and Farley were satisfied with the outcome, but they thought the lawsuit only scratched the surface of what was wrong with strip searches at the jail. Their expert witnesses, the psychologist Joan Leska, had submitted a disturbing report based on in-depth interviews with the plaintiffs, psychological testing, and questionnaires. She’d found that 92 percent of one sample of 80 women had experienced moderate to severe post-trauma-like symptoms—such as panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive memories—immediately after or within six months of their strip search.
Overall, she concluded, the strip search “appears to have been traumatic and significantly distressing for almost all of the women.” Some of the women even likened the experience to rape. “Although rape victims can experience a range of symptoms, a few have been studied consistently,” Leska wrote. “These are fear and anxiety, depression, social maladjustment, and sexual dysfunction. These symptoms were consistently reported by the women who had been strip-searched.”
Despite its findings, and despite the judge’s ruling, the sheriff continued to deny that the strip-search practice had violated anyone’s rights.
With Leska’s report in mind, Morrissey and Farley filed another suit against the sheriff in 2001, this one challenging the nature of the searches. In Wilkes v. Sheahan, they argued that the searches were conducted in an abusive fashion, that they were highly intrusive, and that they endangered the health of the women being searched. The complaint alleged that female inmates were herded in groups of 15 to 40 into squalid bullpens or the gym to be strip-searched. The areas contained “wretched and putrid” odors. The toilets in the bullpens frequently overflowed, and there was “urine, human excrement, blood” on the floors, putting inmates at risk of contracting communicable diseases.
Strip searches conducted in this manner and under these conditions were unreasonable, Morrissey and Farley argued, and therefore unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. The suit also raised broader concerns about human rights. It was essentially about “treating people with respect and dignity,” Morrissey said, “whether they’re in custody or otherwise.” These searches, he continued, “shouldn’t be happening in a civilized society.”
Morrissey and Farley made it clear they were not challenging the sheriff’s right to conduct strip searches. Nor were they seeking damages for their clients. They just wanted the sheriff’s office to conduct individual strip searches in private.
In March 2001, Morrissey and Farley appeared before District Court judge John Darrah asking for an emergency temporary restraining order against the sheriff to prevent their clients from having to undergo group searches.
The sheriff’s office claimed individual strip searches were impractical. The jail’s assistant executive director, John Maul, claimed an estimated 150 women needed to be strip-searched every day, and that individual searches would take between five and ten minutes. Maul estimated that would be 25 hours of strip-searching a day.
The sheriff fought the Wilkes suit with as much determination as he fought Gary v. Sheahan. A spokesperson for the sheriff defended the group searches and called the allegations in the Wilkes complaint “baseless.”
But Morrissey and Farley had about 800 questionnaires from their Gary clients offering consistent descriptions of the nature and conditions of the strip searches, and depositions they’d taken from a few of the sheriff’s own corrections officers even lent support to the women’s allegations about men being in the search areas, menstrual blood on the floors, and nauseating odors permeating the search areas (The stench is “really awful” at times, one officer said. “So bad I have almost vomited”). They also learned that jails in other large cities managed to strip-search their inmates in private. In New York City, which had a larger jail population than Chicago, strip searches were conducted in small sanitary rooms or cubicles, one inmate at a time, according to an affidavit signed by Sheila Vaughan, a bureau chief for the New York City Department of Corrections. Sheriff Sheahan’s attorneys wrote in their motion to dismiss the case that “the foul odors of which the plaintiffs complain,” “the use of derogatory language which plaintiffs allege,” and “embarrassment about being visually strip-searched…or bleeding,” among other allegations in the Wilkes complaint, did not represent constitutional violations. They concluded the motion by citing the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Harris v. Fleming, which, they pointed out, recognized that “inmates cannot expect the amenities, conveniences and services of a good hotel.” But Morrissey and Farley’s clients were not asking for amenities. They were seeking relief from what they considered degrading treatment and filthy conditions. And Judge John Darrah agreed that they seemed to need it. On March 14, he granted injunctive relief to the female inmates at the jail, prohibiting the sheriff and his employees from conducting “intrusive strip searches” in public, and female inmates at the jail began being strip searched behind partitions.
A short while later, the sheriff settled Gary v. Sheahan for $6.8 million. About 3,000 women who’d been illegally strip-searched received about $2,200. Robin Wells and Lorrie Q., who’d filed individual suits, each received a settlement of about $2,500.
Lorrie says she accepted the settlement because she didn’t want to dwell on her experience at the jail anymore. “I just wanted it over and done with,” she says. “I wanted to put it behind me.” She says her suit was never about the money but about “straightening out the problems” at the jail. “That’s what matters.”