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12 Years After Degrading Mass Strip Search, Women in Prison Won $1.4M Settlement

The settlement is far larger than others of its kind and represents a win for Fourth Amendment rights behind bars.

“It was horrific,” Michelle Wells recalls of the morning when the “Orange Crush,” a notorious band of prison guards, stormed through her cellblock at Lincoln Correctional Center, in central Illinois, to conduct a mass shakedown. “They’re not friendly,” she told Truthout in an interview. “When they come in, they come in trashing everything.”

Wells was taken out of her cell, ordered to stand in the hallway facing the wall, and put in handcuffs that were tight against her wrists. “They do their thing, they tear things up, go through your property and throw everything around.” Then it got worse.

Wells and the other women in her cellblock were walked in a single file line to the gym where some 200 other women were being held. She was left standing in handcuffs for “hours” in the gym as she watched the women being taken into a bathroom and strip searched.

“Humiliating, tired, hot,” was how she remembered the incident when she testified before a jury. “They wouldn’t allow us to sit down,” she said. The guards were “hostile,” and threatened that if they did not follow instructions, “We would be put in seg,” she said, referring to segregation, or solitary confinement.

Wells was then taken to the prison beauty shop, where she and other women in the room were told to strip naked. She had been taking medication for high blood pressure. As she stood there, she became dizzy. She fainted and hit her head on a lockbox as she fell. She woke up lying naked on the floor. When she got up, she was told by guards to, “Bend down, squat, open [your] buttocks, and cough.”

The door was open to the room, she recalled, with male guards looking in. “That’s all I see, men, and I was standing there naked. I blocked that part out of my life.”

Fourth Amendment Rights Persist Behind Bars

Wells was a plaintiff in Henry v. Hulett, a class-action lawsuit against the Orange Crush, a self-described “tactical team” of prison guards who carry out coordinated searches of cells. While such brutal exercises are carried out widely in prisons across the country, in Illinois, the guards dress in orange jumpsuits — wearing riot gear, carrying shields and waving batons — earning them their infamous nickname.

I have previously reported for Truthout about the original incident, which happened on March 31, 2011, at the women’s prison in Lincoln, about a three-hour drive south of Chicago. Women who were menstruating were made to take out their tampons and bled through their clothes. Guards laughed at them and made lewd comments. In 2022, the women won a hard-fought victory at a trial in front of a jury who decided that guards violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

More than a dozen years later, much longer than class-action lawsuits typically last, the women and their attorneys finally reached a settlement that was finalized in November 2023 with the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). In a historic decision, a federal judge approved a $1.4 million settlement, with each plaintiff receiving an average of $13,000. Additionally, IDOC agreed to improve its strip search policy, although the specific changes are still unclear.

“This case certainly reflects a win in recognizing the humanity of prisoners, women and all prisoners,” said Ruth Brown, attorney at Loevy & Loevy, the firm representing the women, in an interview with Truthout. The lawsuit was an “uphill battle,” Brown said, “at that time, the legal landscape in our circuit did not recognize that women incarcerated for convictions even had a constitutional right to reasonable strip searches.” These women established an important legal precedent that “the Fourth Amendment does not stop at the prison door.” Because so many women in prison are survivors of past abuse, she said, it’s especially important not to retraumatize them during strip searches.

At the trial, guards tried to malign the women, but Brown said they found a “smoking gun” during discovery. Emails between head Warden Melody Hulett, and the administration staff in charge of “special operations,” Cmdr. Rodney Brady and Maj. Cecil Polley, make clear that the mass strip search was done with the sole intent of conducting a training exercise. The planned “shakedown,” Hulett wrote in an email, was to “strip search the women to give the female cadets an opportunity to experience the proper way to do this.”

The mass strip search was not conducted for security purposes. There was no history of contraband or violence at Lincoln — indeed, there is rarely much violence in women’s prisons. What happened was a coordinated effort to teach new guards how to totally humiliate and dehumanize the incarcerated women.

A Bad Place for Women

As journalist Keri Blakinger has written, “jails and prisons were made with men in mind.… It is a system where women are often an afterthought.” While she was incarcerated, Blakinger found out that it was a “bad place” for a woman to have her menstrual cycle. She had to beg male guards for tampons and find a time to change them when they were not walking by her cell.

Women in Virginia prisons have also spoken out about being violated during strip searches, as Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reported for The Appeal. Women there are forced to remove their tampons during strip searches and are often not allowed to wash their hands. Women visiting their loved ones in Virginia prisons were banned if they were wearing tampons, until public outcry led to legislation overturning the policy.

In California, a woman visiting her husband in prison said she was subjected to invasive strip searches. New policy giving guards greater discretion is being considered in response to the growing number of drug overdoses in California prisons. The inspector general drew attention to the problem at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when, even though visitations had been halted, contraband was still getting into prisons. Now that visitations have been opened up, families are bearing the burden of an increasingly scrutinizing visitor policy.

Few lawsuits challenging strip searches have had success, and those that have won brought relatively small settlements for damages. Class-action lawsuits over strip searches for low-level misdemeanors at jails in New York and Alameda County, California have brought awards of $500-$1,000. These cases were cited as precedent by attorneys in the Illinois lawsuit, making their settlement even more remarkable.

It Could Happen Any Day

Another lawsuit against the Orange Crush was filed two years later for a mass strip search at Logan Correctional Center, to which women from Lincoln were moved in 2013. Also located in the town of Lincoln, Logan currently holds the majority of women in Illinois prisons and has recently been cited in an independent report for being in a state of disrepair.

What happened the morning of October 31, 2013, on Halloween, could have been a scene from a horror movie. Orange Crush guards came in “screaming” at the women to get out of bed. They were strip searched in the open doorways of their cells for all to see. According to the lawsuit, each of them was told to “lift their breasts, bend over and spread their buttocks, and squat and cough.” Again, this was a training exercise for new cadets, the suit claimed.

Willette Benford was one of the many women who were present for both raids in 2011 and 2013. These kinds of mass strip searches were common during her 24 years incarcerated in Illinois prisons. “It always shocked the conscience,” said Benford, who spoke to Truthout in an interview. “We knew we lived in an environment where there’s a possibility that it could happen to you any day.” At Lincoln and Logan, guards had just become more “brazen.” It was, Benford explained, “a total, total disregard for women.”

After lawyers settled the lawsuit for the Logan incident, Benford received a $325 check in the mail from IDOC. The paltry amount was, as Benford wrote in an article for The Marshall Project, “even greater proof that the system does not care about Black women.” She still has not cashed the check.

In Search of a Search Policy

Benford’s story was included in the 2021 report, “Redefining the Narrative,” released by the Women’s Justice Institute and the Statewide Women’s Justice Task Force of Illinois. The report calls for IDOC to overhaul traumatizing strip searches, invest in body scanners and adopt a zero-tolerance policy against verbal abuse by guards. As part of the Women’s Correctional Services Act, passed in 2019, the IDOC agreed to a new “Safety Search” policy, which includes ending such mass strip searches.

Truthout reached out to IDOC for an interview about policy changes that were agreed to as part of the settlement for the Lincoln incident, but they declined. IDOC Public Information Officer Naomi Puzzello said in a statement that changes have been implemented, “regarding searches of individuals who are menstruating.” The department has trained guards to conduct searches in a professional manner, “but for security reasons cannot provide the specifics of that policy.”

Wells is out of prison and takes care of her 82-year-old mother. After she gave her testimony, Wells felt a sense of closure. It’s not about the money, she said. “It’s about respect. Even if I’m in prison and got a number, you should treat me with dignity.” It took 12 years, but it was worth it, “whatever it takes for other inmates not to go through what I went through, so be it.”

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