Judge approves settlement over women's jail strip searches

Settlement would prohibit male guards from videotaping strip searches of female inmates

Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — A lawsuit settlement that would prohibit male guards from videotaping strip searches of female inmates at a women's jail received preliminary approval by a federal judge on Thursday.

The lawsuit was filed in 2011 on behalf of 176 current and former inmates at Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center in Chicopee.

U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor in Springfield will hold a hearing on final approval of the settlement in September. He ruled last year that allowing male guards to videotape strip searches of female inmates was humiliating and unconstitutional. He said the practice was "antithetical to human dignity" and served no legitimate purpose.

The settlement calls for Massachusetts to pay $675,000, with each plaintiff getting at least $1,000, and to ban male guards from videotaping strip searches of female inmates, except in emergencies.

No one could be reached to comment at the jail, where the telephone rang unanswered.

The inmates' lawyer, David Milton, said the settlement doesn't address female guards videotaping strip searches so such searches can still be recorded.

"Neither defendants nor any of the prison experts I spoke to knew of any jail or prison in the United States that has a policy like the WCC's," Milton said. "The payments to the class members, many of whom have histories of sexual abuse or suffer from mental illness, represent an acknowledgement of the harm inflicted by this policy."

Milton released a statement from the lead plaintiff in the case, former inmate Debra Baggett.

"I am grateful for the wisdom and fairness of federal Judge Michael Ponsor, who realized that the case was not so much about what male officers claimed they could or couldn't see, but rather the humiliation and the unnecessary debasement of the women forced to display to a camera held by a man the most private parts of their bodies," it said.

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