Lawsuit Filed In Prison Search

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8 Workers Allege Strip- Search Violated Rights

$40 Million Sought

July 09, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Eight people who worked at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown have filed a $40 million lawsuit against nine colleagues, alleging that their constitutional rights were violated through "sexually intrusive, humiliating" and unjustified strip-searches performed during a poorly executed drug sweep in 2008.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Washington County Circuit Court, says the plaintiffs were told to strip naked by fellow employees based on readings from drug scanning equipment, then directed to "squat and cough" to see if they were hiding controlled substances in their body cavities. The searchers, who found nothing, later ridiculed the victims' underwear and physical appearance, court papers allege.

An internal investigation by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services confirms most of the lawsuit's assertions and shows that policies were ignored or in some cases did not exist. There was a policy draft for strip-searching prison staff members, but nothing official, according to the report obtained by The Baltimore Sun. The report also suggests that the drug scanner was either faulty or misused.

DPSCS Secretary Gary D. Maynard, in a letter published last year in the Hagerstown Herald-Mail, acknowledged that the "hastily organized" operation "fell short" and "caused stress and embarrassment to some very fine employees." He promised "appropriate" disciplinary action and policy review and gave an assurance that "it won't happen again," though it did at another facility less than two months later, according to a department news release.

Yet nearly a year after the Aug. 12 incident, "nothing meaningful" has been done, said Robert Schulte, a Baltimore lawyer representing the plaintiffs, most of whom still work at the Hagerstown prison. His clients' cars were searched that day, and each person later submitted to urinalysis.

"This was just very ugly from beginning to end. I just think [the defendants] should be ashamed," Schulte said.

A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said laws prevent him from confirming or characterizing punitive actions taken against personnel, though he did verify that the strip-search policy had been changed as a result of the incidents. As of March, it incorporates guidelines for strip-searching staff and says that only the Division of Corrections commissioner can order such searches, where wardens could do so previously; the policy is expected to change again before the end of the year, requiring the department secretary's approval.

"When you become a correctional employee or staff associate, you're told up front that there are certain intrusive security procedures you have to put up with from time to time," said spokesman Rick Binetti. But "given the sensitivity of [strip-] searches, the department just feels that the authorization should come properly from the chain of command."

The department is reviewing the use of the IONSCAN machines to detect drugs. The devices are supposed to measure traces of narcotics and sound an alarm when certain levels are present, but the machine was doing so at widely varying levels Aug. 12, and MCTC staff conducted strip-searches even though policy says they should do so only if the machine registered above a specific level.

According to the internal investigation, Lt. Tonya Leonard, who oversaw the August operation, said she "made a judgment call" based on a previous drug sweep in Baltimore "where all staff were strip-searched if the IONSCAN alarmed at any threshold level."

Leonard is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with four other correctional officers who performed the searches. Also named are Maynard, MCTC warden D. Kenneth Horning and Division of Corrections Commissioner Michael Stouffer, who is said to have personally apologized to the stripped employees.

Courts allow for strip-searches, but warn that they should not be undertaken lightly. They can be "degrading and invasive," a 2004 opinion by Maryland's highest court said, and should occur only if there is a reasonable suspicion that someone is "carrying weapons or contraband."

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has long acknowledged that contraband in Maryland prisons is a dangerous problem that is worsened by corrupt staff who smuggle in everything from drugs and cell phones to salmon and cigars. Contraband at the Hagerstown facility had "increased drastically" last summer, according to a department memo, with several inmate overdoses and one drug-related death.

The August drug sweep, proposed in late June and organized the next month, was meant to thwart the admission of contraband. Instead, it violated the privacy of nine people (one man is not part of the lawsuit), Schulte said. He also represents plaintiffs in another lawsuit that alleges illegal strip-searches of citizens by law enforcement officials, a much more typical accusation.

The plaintiffs in the Washington County lawsuit are three correctional officers, a teacher, a dental assistant, two case managers and a psychology associate who described the strip-search as "the most humiliating" experience of her life.

According to the lawsuit, one woman was "publicly ridiculed" after the incident for "not having worn underwear," and a man was with his son at a baseball game when a fellow employee shouted, "Hey, Sarge [sergeant], nice to see you with your clothes on."

Schulte says the post-search ridicule constitutes "ill will" and malice toward the plaintiffs.

"A message needs to be sent that you don't get to strip people of their dignity, of their basic fundamental constitutional rights," Schulte said.

"They could have settled with these people very early," he said. "They didn't."

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