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WA Prison Deters Participation in Restorative Justice by Ordering Strip Searches

Strip searches, a practice that dates back to auctions of enslaved people, have long been common in U.S. prisons.

Shadeed Beaver, who is 13 years into a 27-year prison sentence, was excited when he first learned about “Bridges To Life,” a restorative justice class offered at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Washington. The class, which pairs incarcerated people with victims of crime, guides participants through conversations aimed at developing mutual understanding. It provides a rare opportunity for incarcerated people to confront the harm of their actions — and for people who have been harmed to understand some of the factors that lead to crime.

Beaver paid close attention during the first class, as they discussed how crime affects entire communities — not just the direct participants and victims. But at the end of the class, a prison guard demanded he submit to a strip search before returning to the prison’s living unit.

Beaver was taken aback. Guards sat close by the entire class, and there were cameras everywhere. The nonincarcerated participants had badges allowing them access to the prison. His friends who had taken the class previously never had to be strip searched afterward.

“I never thought I’d be forced to expose my body for trying to better myself,” Beaver told Truthout. “I thought I was here to learn something to help me rethink the destructive way I’ve been living my life. Not that I was coming to a class to be victimized myself.”

Strip searches, a practice that dates back to auctions of enslaved people, have long been common practice in prisons throughout the United States. It’s a way for the dominant party to wield complete control over the oppressed. Prison officials claim strip searches are necessary to prevent drugs and other contraband from entering the prison. In practice, strip searches are conducted with a frequency and arbitrariness that makes clear the goal is not to ensure our safety — but to deprive us of our bodily autonomy and assert the state’s power over our physical being. In prison, the practice is widely viewed as a form of sexual assault.

People in prison are often forced to endure strip searches for medical appointments and visits with friends and family. In Washington state, people held in solitary confinement can be strip searched just to go outside in the recreation yard or to use the phone to call loved ones. Up until recently, the Bridges To Life class did not require a strip search.

That changed when the class moved from the prison’s chapel to the visiting room. Despite the change in venue, the students, volunteers and participants remained the same. No additional smuggling risk had been introduced. When incarcerated participants objected to the new requirement to be searched, prison guards said they didn’t have a choice. Had prisoners resisted, they risked facing disciplinary action for refusing a direct order, which could lead to losing phone calls, visitation and educational opportunities, a stint in solitary confinement, and even time added to their sentence.

So they removed their clothes, ran their fingers across their gums, showed their hands, folded their ears, lifted their scrotum, turned around, showed the soles of their feet and spread their buttocks until their anus was in full view of the guards’ prying gaze.

Beaver doesn’t plan to return to class unless they drop the strip search requirement. It wasn’t an easy choice. He wants to spend his time working on self-betterment, and there are limited opportunities in prison. But he says it feels too degrading to willingly subject himself to being stripped naked and forced to reveal every crevice of his body to prison guards each week.

There is no reason for any prisoner to be forced to endure these dehumanizing strip searches. It is all the more nonsensical when the practice is deterring people from engaging in restorative justice programs, like Bridges To Life, that make our communities safer.

“I only want to better myself for my family and my community,” Beaver said, “But I don’t want to take off my clothes in front of a stranger to do it.”

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