To the Editor:
At the opening of this legislative session I was hopeful correctional policy would bend toward justice and humanity. Many of us invested lots of time and energy bringing the voices of the unheard into the public arena with hopes that by the end of the legislative process there would be evidence they were heard. Obviously, we failed at moving legislators to do the only right thing in relation to ending the routine dehumanizing strip searching of incarcerated people.
What a dismal session this has been thus far. I was hopeful that after decades of state sanctioned sexual exploitation and violence against incarcerated children, women and men that this practice would cease to exist. We all were in the room to hear deeply painful stories about the degrading, dehumanizing and humiliating experience they endured in the custody of the Connecticut Department of Correction. Women on the inside wrote letters to be read into the public record detailing being strip searched several times a week and sometimes more than once in a day if they were leaving facilities to go to court or work. Also if meeting with a service provider or attorney, experiencing a mental health crisis, being placed in isolation or even after enjoying a visit with their families, strip searches were departmental policy. I recall years ago when my son talked about being forced to strip nude following a visit even if the visit was non- contact. I knew they were stripped, which is humiliating in itself, yet I had no idea the degrading extent of the process.
The policy is subject to abuse because there is no mechanism in place to monitor its use. Men testified to random searches where people are simply pointed out of a crowd and forced to submit without any probable cause. Some talked about being made to get on their knees and expose their anal cavities. I never knew what a search entailed until recently when I heard it explicitly described by those with lived experience. “Strip nude, lift your breasts, your testicles, bend at your waist, cough and spread your butt cheeks so an officer (or more) could look into your anus or vagina. Then you’re asked to place your fingers in your mouth to expose every cavity inside. Women were made to remove tampons if they were menstruating. At times searches are recorded. Some were forced into submission by chaining them while they cut their clothing off. Men were reluctant to talk about it. Women were brought to tears even after being out of prison for years. Submitting wasn’t a choice. It was a routine practice they were forced to adapt because it was correctional policy. After hearing these stories and feeling their pain, I was determined that this border line perversion had to end, and NOW. Not one more day of this kind of torture should be acceptable in a civil society. The thought of children being forced into submitting to this makes my stomach ache.
There were officers who testified they did not enjoy these searches yet a lieutenant within the Department of Correction was recently caught taking this practice outside his job. He was arrested a month ago for taping a young girl in a store undressing.
These dehumanizing searches are, according to the Commissioner of Correction, in the name of “safety and security” to keep drugs out of facilities. I questioned why with the long history of officers bringing contraband into facilities there is no policy for routinely strip searching officers. Officers bringing drugs, phones and other contraband are not new. The most recent officer arrested, Noe Agramonte, reportedly established a cash app account for collecting money to supply drugs to incarcerated people. He was arrested just last year. He is among a long list of officers arrested for doing the same.
My organization, Stop Solitary CT, submitted a proposal to end this madness. Legislators came up with a compromise we thought we could live with as a beginning step toward the end. By the time it was voted out of Judiciary Committee it was simply a request for a report from the commissioner in 2024 on purchasing body scanners. And when they purchase will they require anyone coming into the facilities to pass through them as several states now do.
Connecticut is an outlier when it comes to corrections. International law states strip searches should be used as a last resort and done in private with documentation supporting why it was necessary and the outcome of the search. When it comes to use of isolation, International law states it should be used only as a last resort and for the shortest period of time. Even with the passage of Connecticut law efforts to reduce solitary confinement, (by whatever name they choose to use at any given time) reports of long term isolation continue. It’s time Connecticut looks in the mirror and question have they lost their humanity and do they believe they are immune to the rule of law.
Correctional staff wedded to the system will try to defend what is reprehensible. They show up to report on hundreds of unsubstantiated reports of drugs and weapons found in facilities to justify this asinine practice of routine strip searches. We heard from officers who state they hate that part of their job and so our struggle to maintain human dignity inside Corrections will be helping them as well. The commissioner’s mantra that his inability to hire and retain professional staff is all about money when in reality many who have left the department will tell you it’s about the inability to live up to a code of professional and personal ethics that turns them away. The environment too toxic with rampant abuse and death.
A dramatic shift in societal and correctional culture is the only pathway to true correctional health in Connecticut. Not an easy task when large sections of Connecticut are untouched by jails and prisons aside from the tax incentives they receive for hosting jails, prisons and youth facilities. Those who reject that culture shift will continue to maintain this sick system with the same coded rhetoric that the abuse of incarcerated people is all about “keeping them safe.” Who are we making safe with correctional policies?
Barbara Fair, LCSW
West Haven, CT