Lawsuit: Rectal exams for Calif. COs were unnecessary, invasive
About 190 current and former COs, who said they were subjected to the exams, filed a lawsuit against the CDCR
By Wes Venteicher
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The young men and women who had been selected to become correctional officers at California’s state prisons were ready to do whatever it took to get the coveted jobs.
So they put aside their objections when medical workers at a group of Sacramento clinics told them they needed rectal exams before they could start training, several told The Sacramento Bee.
About 190 current and former correctional officers who say they were subjected to the exams filed a lawsuit Thursday against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. They allege the exams, performed from around 2006 to 2016, were unnecessary and constituted sexual assault.
The corrections department requires visual inspections of the genital area but doesn’t require rectal exams unless recruits are 50 or older, according to a hiring bulletin for the position. Yet incoming officers in their early 20s had to undergo the exams, according to Jamie Wright, an attorney with J. Wright Law Group in Los Angeles. Wright and Bryan Harrison of Pasadena-based firm Harrison Kristopher are representing the current and former officers.
In addition to rectal exams, some women were subjected to vaginal penetration and were told to squat for vaginal examinations, according to the lawsuit. Some were forced to strip for tattoo searches, Wright said.
“It’s a sexual violation,” said Wright, the attorney. “It’s assault; it’s battery. And it was done under duress.”
Wright said she expects to file an amended complaint soon adding at least 110 more plaintiffs to the complaint, which was filed without plaintiffs’ names.
The corrections department did not respond to a request for comment by a deadline Thursday. The civil lawsuit was filed in Sacramento County Superior Court.
The exams took place during the medical evaluations in which recruits get drug tests and have their vision, blood pressure and other vitals checked before beginning training at the correctional officer academy in Galt, said three plaintiffs who spoke with The Bee on the condition of anonymity.
At a certain point they were told by a physician’s assistant to undress, put on an open-backed gown and bend over or lie down for the exam, which involved the painful insertion of two fingers, they said.
They said a physician’s assistant told them they were checking their prostates.
One woman said she was 22 when she underwent the exam in 2014. A physician’s assistant told her it was a prostate exam, she said. Women don’t have prostates.
“It was very uncomfortable and I was really confused,” the woman said. “I just wanted to get out of there.”
Some objected to the invasion, including a male recruit who had served in the military without having to get a rectal exam.
“I said ‘I’m only 28,’” he said. “They stayed firm. (They said) ‘that’s what CDCR wants.’”
Not medically necessary
Wright estimates the exams occurred from 2006 to 2016 based on conversations with officers. She hasn’t heard of the exams taking place since then.
Peace officers, including those who work at prisons, have to undergo not only thorough medical evaluations but background checks and physical fitness tests.
Yet there are no medical guidelines suggesting a rectal exam is useful in determining someone’s fitness, even for people over 50, said Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine at UC Davis.
“Rectal exams are helpful when someone comes in with a rectal problem, but they’re not routine exams for anyone anymore,” Wilkes said.
He said hernia checks — the classic turn-your-head-and-cough test — could make sense for physical fitness tests, but not a rectal exam.
Only incoming officers from Northern California had to undergo the exams, according to the suit. The northern recruits found out through conversations at the academy that their southern counterparts weren’t subjected to the exams, the plaintiffs said.
The three plaintiffs said they have largely kept silent about the exams since then.
“I’ve kind of kept it to myself,” said one of the males who filed suit. “I felt violated. It’s not something you really want to disclose.”
Sacramento Family Medical Clinics
Wright said most of the exams took place at one of several clinics that were part of Sacramento Family Medical Clinics, an LLC that was owned by Dr. Gilbert Simon until 2016. The lawsuit names Simon and his clinics.
Simon, reached by phone Thursday, said the physician’s assistants he employed were just following the corrections department’s orders.
“If it were done, the reason was it was required,” he said. “Or at least perceived to be required. Nobody does it happily.”
Yet Simon, who is now retired, also said he thought rectal examinations may be part of regular health checkups to look for cancer or swelling that could indicate infection.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the national authority on screening, is ambivalent about prostate exams — meant to identify the presence of cancer — once men hit 55. The task force’s recommendation says men at that age should make a decision with their doctor about screening. It doesn’t make any recommendations for younger men.
Simon said he didn’t perform any of the exams himself. He said a prostate exam for a woman wouldn’t make sense.
“I can’t explain that,” he said. “There’s nothing to look for in a female rectal examination as a routine. But for men it’s part of the examination.”
Medical journal articles on annual exams published in recent years generally recommend against prostate cancer screening and make no mention of rectal exams for other purposes when patients don’t show symptoms.
“I teach this stuff at medical school; I can’t imagine why you would do a rectal exam,” said Wilkes, the UC Davis professor.
Simon said the corrections department awarded contracts for the medical screenings to his business for “two to three” two-year cycles. He said he sold the 10 clinics to River City Medical Group.
©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)