A recently filed lawsuit has brought to light allegations that visitors to Rikers Island prison in New York are subjected to frightening, invasive, demeaning, and against the rules searches. A number of women visiting male relatives at the prison claim that before being given access to the prison they were forced to strip naked, have their body cavities searched by guards inserting fingers into their anus, and were also fondled and groped by guards. Plentiful news coverage is available here, here, and here.
Now obviously prisons have a strong interest in keeping out contraband, and visitors may attempt to deliver drugs, weapons, or other forbidden items. In the news stories linked above correction officers are quoted recalling all the outrageous ways visitors have tried to sneak things in over the years, including hiding drugs in body cavities and baby bottles, to justify these searches.
But, as prison authorities are also quoted as admitting, visits are critical for helping inmates maintain contact with their families on the outside and are obviously also important for helping the inmates’ prospects when they are eventually released. The effect of these frightening and demeaning searches is to reduce visits and make things even harder for the inmates and their families.
There would seem to be other ways for a prison to stop visitors from bringing contraband. I’ve visited a maximum security Wisconsin state prison numerous times and never undergone a search more invasive than what’s done in an airport. Inmates, on the other hand, are strip-searched after their visits. Isn’t that sufficient to solve the problem right there?
The Vast Imbalance of Power
These searches at Rikers Island are a symptom of the main problem at prisons- the vast power guards wield over every aspect of inmates’ lives. Departments of corrections may make numerous rules to protect inmates from abuse, but in practice, since inmates are completely at guards’ mercy 24 hours a day there is no way for these rules to be enforced. Inmates cannot complain, assert their rights, or even defend themselves due to fear of guards’ retaliation.
Take these quotes from the NBC New York article:
“It wasn’t even a strip search. I was sexually assaulted,” (Alicia Martinez, one of the women suing) said. “All I kept thinking was, if I didn’t do what they said, that I wasn’t going to be able to go home. They made it clear that they were the ones in charge and I had to do what they said.”
“She put her hands inside my underpants,” (Lillian Rivera, another of these women) said. “She (the guard executing the search) started grabbing me.” She (Rivera) wanted to scream in protest, but felt compelled to stay silent to be able to see her husband. She said her life has not been the same since the search, and that it never will be.
Jeannette Reynoso, a young mother from the Bronx, told the I-Team about a strip search where an officer allegedly threatened to take away her visitation rights for 45 days if she refused to take off her clothes. “I was shaking and that’s when I felt the other officer,” she said. “She was like, down on her knees, and that’s when I felt her penetrate me.”
These women are just visitors, coming to the prison freely, and free to leave at any time. If they felt so intimidated by the guards’ threats that they succumbed to these searches, imagine what it must be like for inmates!
Should an inmate be assaulted by a guard, sure the inmate could report it. But that inmate would then be vulnerable to retaliation of every type. That guard (or his co-workers) could easily take away the inmate’s visiting privileges, recreation privileges, work privileges, or come up with a pretext to put the inmate in solitary to name just a few possible consequences. Would an inmate really want to expose himself or herself to guards’ tortuous wrath just to submit a complaint that will be extremely difficult to prove and likely unsuccessful?
This brings up a critical point about incarceration. While of course crimes must be punished, when a person is punished so harshly that all control of their daily necessities and living conditions is in the hands of others abuse will almost inevitably follow.
Perhaps the thought of years in a small cell in a gloomy jail under the total supervision and control of guards seems like a fitting consequence for certain crimes. But physical and sexual abuse are never acceptable punishments, and when an inmate is put in such a helpless and dependent situation there is really no way for any prison authority to stop that from happening. The conclusion is that we cannot allow conditions in prisons that make prisoners so vulnerable in the first place. If that means even inmates who have committed the worst crimes must be given conditions in which they have a little more security and control over their own everyday existence, that’s a direct consequence of our commitment to prisoners’ basic human rights.