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Word comes from the triumphant lawyers Tuesday that Cook County and its insurers have agreed to pay out $55 million as compensation for illegal strip searches at the county jail between January of 2004 and March of 2009. The money will be split among as many as 250,000 people jailed and strip-searched during that period — the lawyers, Loevy & Loevy of Chicago, are asking for anyone who fits that description to come forward.
Here's a description of the strip searches — contained in an order 21 months ago by a federal judge issuing summary judgment on a portion of the suit, Young v. Cook County. Searches "involved having detainees strip naked, bend over, and spread their buttocks, or by having the detainees squat and cough multiple times," wrote Judge Matthew Kennelly. "Strip searches were conducted without regard to the seriousness of the charges against an individual detainee and without individualized reasonable suspicion that a strip search was necessary."
Women detainees caught a break. They "were strip searched in open-faced cubicles, a space similar to that provided by a privacy screen in a doctor's office....Each cubicle contained a chair for the women's clothes, and the detainees could not see individuals in other cubicles....The squat-and-cough method was used for female detainees, not the bend-and-spread method."
For the men, however, bend-and-spread ruled until February 2006. What's more, there was no privacy. "Male detainees were lined up in a hallway for their strip search. At times, detainees would cover the entire length of the hallway wall."
If the county was gentler with the women, it was because they'd fought earlier legal battles. Mass searches reigned when former Reader staffer Tori Marlan began writing about the strip searching of female detainees in 1998. "Completely naked in a roomful of strangers, she felt even more mortified when she looked at the ceiling and saw a security camera pointed at the bull pen," Marlan wrote in her first story. "Was she on display somewhere, she wondered. Was somebody taping this? The guard barked icy commands. Ruffle your hair. Lift your right breast. Lift your left breast. Lorrie closely watched the inmates up front, somewhat comforted that at least they weren't watching her."
Detainees weren't strip-searched only when they entered the jail, but also when they were sent home. "You think you're leaving. But no," Stephanie, who'd been pulled over for running a red light and had left her license at home, told Marlan. After her case was dismissed, Stephanie was told "Get over there and take your clothes off." She said, "There were maybe about 30 women. You got women who are on their period. It don't matter. You lay your sanitary napkin down on the floor. You got women who've been in the streets for over a month. I mean it's just disgusting. Whoever was more physically attractive, like a younger girl, they'd be like, 'Step up, I can't see you.' When the guard tells you to bend over, someone's crack is right there in your face."
Marlan was writing about a lawsuit filed in 1996 to end this practice. A few months later she wrote again to report that the suit had been won. Then sheriff Michael Sheehan appealed, and in 2001 Marlan wrote a third article that said a new federal suit had just been filed because nothing much had changed. Well, one thing had — Marlan was now forbidden to visit women inmates at the jail.
Mike Kanovitz of Loevy & Loevy tells me he heard about those earlier suits from jail officials he was deposing in connection with Young v. Cook County. Those suits were eventually won, and the officials said that's why the treatment of women detainees changed. But male detainees weren't parties to the suits, and that's why the treatment they got didn't.
Tori Marlan has pointed me to this two-minute tour of strip searching in Chicago, which she offered in her first article on the subject.
From 1952 to 1979 the Police Department routinely pulled women off the streets for minor offenses—such as having too many unpaid parking tickets—and put them through invasive strip searches, while a pat-down search sufficed for men arrested under similar circumstances.
In 1979 a television news station, tipped off by the American Civil Liberties Union, exposed the inappropriate and discriminatory policy. The station aired interviews with women who'd gone through the humiliating searches and encouraged others with similar stories to call the ACLU. About 300 women responded, and the ACLU filed a class-action suit against the city.
The scandal outraged the public, and in September 1979 the state legislature enacted a law that prohibited police from strip-searching people arrested for minor offenses without reason to believe they were concealing weapons or contraband.
According to Edward Stein, who represented at least 15 women who sued for damages, the Police Department first denied that the strip searches ever happened, then defended its policy in court, claiming that the searches were reasonable because women had more orifices than men and because they were known to hide drugs and small weapons in their bras. A judge ruled the policy unconstitutional. The city appealed and lost. Ironically, Morrissey [the attorney who filed the suit Marlan was writing about], recently out of law school, was working in the city's civil rights department, and he assisted more seasoned attorneys on a few separate strip-search cases, arguing that the harm was not as severe as the women claimed.
Juries awarded damages ranging from $3,300 to $112,000. (A judge later reduced the highest award to $75,000). Some of the attorneys' fees, which the city also had to pay, exceeded $100,000. Overall, fighting for the Police Department's strip-search policy cost the city an estimated $3 million.
Despite the price Chicago paid for its strip-search policy, Calumet City's police department kept a similar policy firmly in place. Violating both the U.S. Constitution and the new state law, Calumet City police continued to strip-search women arrested for trivial traffic offenses and misdemeanors such as shoplifting and underage drinking. Finally in 1987 hundreds of women sued the city—some saying that male officers had conducted the searches, lifting their breasts and probing their genitals with ungloved fingers. Together the women won about $6 million in damages.
The conclusion our local authorities reached after suffering all these legal defeats was apparently, "Yes, but men love it."