Lorrie Q. had never been in jail before. In the receiving area at Cook County Jail a few female guards corralled her and a group of other women into one of several bull pens. The small room had a bathroom stall without a door and hard benches that were fastened down. Spilled drinks, cigarette butts, and ashes dirtied the floor. The air reeked of body odor, excrement, and stale smoke. The guards stared in through a clear glass wall.
One of the guards stepped inside the bull pen and ordered the women to take off their clothes. Lorrie made a beeline to the back, hoping to hide behind the other inmates, but the guard made them stand in staggered rows. Lorrie would have stood out anyway. She was the only white woman in the group, and she weighed nearly 300 pounds.
A 34-year-old dispatcher, Lorrie couldn't believe that a traffic stop had landed her in jail. The previous night, a Saturday, January 20, 1996, she'd been on her way to a restaurant when a police officer pulled her over for driving with expired plates. The officer instructed her to follow his squad car to the Pullman police station. She thought it strange that he didn't issue her a ticket on the spot, but she did as she was told.
At the station the officer handcuffed Lorrie, saying there was an outstanding warrant for her arrest dating back to 1992. This was news to her. At the time she'd injured an elderly pedestrian while driving on a suspended license, but she'd pleaded guilty in traffic court. She thought she'd taken care of everything long ago, including the $700 in fines, and she assumed that the police would easily confirm this and let her go. But the police told her only a judge could release her now. Since traffic court was closed Saturdays, she spent the night in the lockup. Early the next morning the police transported her in a paddy wagon to Cook County Jail. Traffic court was closed Sundays too.
In the bull pen Lorrie disrobed along with the other inmates, shaking out each article of clothing as instructed. She hesitated momentarily before stepping out of her underpants, embarrassed by the day-old sanitary napkin stuck to them. 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. 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. As a child, she'd suffered cruel taunts about her weight. Her sixth-grade classmates called her Ziggy the Elephant, after a resident at the Brookfield Zoo. When she tried to fit in, to make herself pretty, they laughed, they jeered, they mocked her. Ziggy the Elephant got a perm, they said.
"You in the back," the guard shouted at Lorrie, "lift up that flab." Heads turned as Lorrie raised the folds of flesh hanging off her stomach.
The guard then told the women to face the back of the bull pen, and Lorrie found herself smack in front of the group for the final commands--bending over, spreading her buttocks apart, and squatting and coughing several times.
The next morning in court the judge couldn't find any record that Lorrie had paid her fines. He continued the case, telling her to bring either receipts or money to the next hearing. Then he released her from jail on her own recognizance. She was finally going home. Or so she thought.
At approximately 12:30 PM Lorrie was sent back to the jail's receiving area to be processed out. Other women coming back from court crowded into one of the bull pens with her. In groups of about ten they were taken across the hall into another bull pen and strip-searched. When the guards told Lorrie it was her turn, she thought there'd been a mistake. "I'm like, wait a minute," she recalls. "Why do I have to go through a strip search when I was just released? I'm supposed to go home. It was back through the same routine. But now there were all these people coming back from court, like 50 in the room. Now you've got an audience."
A couple of hours later Lorrie found herself back in the living quarters. Someone served her dinner. Too upset to eat, she gave it away. She stared off into space, wondering why she hadn't been released, while the other inmates watched TV, chatted, and played cards. When a guard announced lights out, she approached him and said she wasn't supposed to go to bed, she was supposed to go home. She remembers his answer clearly: "When you're going to be let go, we'll let you know."
Lorrie stayed awake in her cell, afraid she'd sleep through the call for her release. Hours passed before someone shouted her name and unlocked her cell door. Then she changed into her street clothes and signed a piece of paper. Someone handed her a CTA token, some change for a transfer, and her house keys.
Jail logs say she was released at 1:05 AM. Lorrie says it was more like 2 AM before she strode out into the chilly winter darkness to wait for a bus at the corner of 26th and California. Two hours and two transfers later she walked the last five blocks to her apartment, feeling enervated and defeated.
Back in her own home, Lorrie still couldn't sleep. She cried uncontrollably and vomited twice. Later that morning she called to say she couldn't come in to work. Feeling "disgustingly dirty," she took a long hot bath, then spent the rest of the morning going through the alphabetical listings in the Yellow Pages, calling attorneys. She didn't get past B before one of them referred her to Tom Morrissey.
A private attorney who defends people's civil rights out of a small office in a southwest-side strip mall, Tom Morrissey is a thorn in Sheriff Michael Sheahan's side. He's known, not fondly, by the sheriff's staff as someone who supports himself representing former inmates with gripes against the Cook County Department of Corrections.
Indeed, Morrissey considers the jail a wellspring of civil rights infractions. He's sued the sheriff's office 31 times, by its own count, since Sheahan took over in 1990, claiming that his clients have been subject to various forms of mistreatment in jail, such as being struck in the face by guards, wrongfully detained for weeks after their cases were discharged, and misidentified as criminal suspects because they have common names. Until Lorrie called, Morrissey pretty much thought he'd heard it all.
Morrissey and Sheahan both live in the prosperous community of Beverly, though they travel in different circles. A generation apart, they're products of similar backgrounds. Each comes from a large family of Irish descent. Each has eight siblings, grew up on the southwest side, attended Catholic schools, and followed in his father's footsteps. For Morrissey that meant becoming a lawyer (five of his siblings are also attorneys). For Sheahan, whose father was a Chicago police officer, it meant going into law enforcement (two of his brothers are currently on the force).
After graduating from Brother Rice High School in 1973, Morrissey went to Georgetown University, where he received both his bachelor's and law degrees. In 1979 he returned to Chicago to practice his profession.
Sheahan's career didn't follow as straight a trajectory. In 1967 he graduated from Saint Joseph's College in Indiana, then dabbled in education, his mother's profession. He taught high school, coached football and basketball, and eventually became a Big Ten football referee. In 1971 he joined the Chicago Police Department.
During this time Sheahan also got involved in politics. He worked on local campaigns and had strong ties to his alderman and state senator. (His brother James, a longtime Democratic Party operative, has worked in various capacities for Mayor Daley over the years; he recently stepped down as head of the Mayor's Office of Special Events.) In 1979, with the Democratic endorsement, Sheahan became alderman of the 19th Ward, a position he held until he was elected sheriff in 1990.
Like the sheriffs who preceded him, Sheahan is constantly dogged by lawsuits, many of them frivolous. But Morrissey doesn't sue him because inmates dislike their food--and he's won most of the cases that have been resolved. He believes that the person with ultimate authority over the jail should be held accountable for any policies and practices that violate people's rights. "Our premise is that what goes on at the jail are not acts by individual correctional officers. The sheriff's office as a whole is responsible."
Lorrie's story intrigued Morrissey. It seemed to encompass elements of two class-action suits he had pending against the sheriff's office. In the first one, Hvorcik v. Sheahan, filed in 1992, Morrissey claimed that the sheriff's computer database contained outdated and invalid warrants, which had resulted in innocent people being wrongfully arrested--sometimes repeatedly. (The suit would eventually force the sheriff's office to effectively dismantle its system, leaving the business of tracking warrants to the state and city police and the FBI.)
Hvorcik led to the second class-action suit. Many of Morrissey's clients told him that after a judge apologized for the bogus warrants and dismissed their cases, they were detained for ten hours or more while the corrections staff processed the paperwork. Morrissey believed the sheriff had a duty to expeditiously release inmates whose cases had been discharged, and in 1994 he filed Watson v. Sheahan, claiming that the sheriff had effectively reincarcerated people who should have been released. (The sheriff's office would finally settle in June 1997, agreeing to speed up the release time and to pay $90 in damages to each of Morrissey's 5,270 clients.)
Then in 1995 a Watson client named Robin Wells mentioned to Morrissey that she'd been strip-searched prior to her release. Morrissey understood the reason for strip-searching her on the way into jail, but he didn't understand the reason for strip-searching her on the way out. It prolonged her detention and seemed completely unnecessary. A judge had discharged her case. She was going home. Besides, hadn't she been under the sheriff's deputies' watchful eyes during her trip to court? Wouldn't they know if she'd acquired a gun or drugs or other contraband during the short time she spent outside the confines of the jail?
After talking to a few of his other Watson clients, Morrissey began to suspect that only female inmates underwent strip searches prior to their release. He sued the sheriff's office on Wells's behalf, for violating both the 4th Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches, and the 14th Amendment, which protects against discrimination based on gender.
A few months later Morrissey met with Lorrie, and in March 1996 he filed a similar strip-search suit on her behalf. In the meantime Morrissey continued questioning his female Watson clients, and every one of them told him they'd been strip-searched after returning from court. The men, for the most part, told him they hadn't been. "It was clearly unequal treatment of females," Morrissey says.
It was also deja vu. Chicago had a long and ignominious history of strip-searching women. 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, 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.
Wondering why the sheriff's office hadn't learned from what had happened to Chicago's and Calumet City's police departments, Morrissey began pulling together a class-action suit on behalf of female inmates, while continuing to pursue the individual strip-search cases. He asked his old friend and fellow attorney Robert Farley if he'd help. The two had gone to elementary school and high school together. When Morrissey went east to college and law school, Farley stayed in Chicago, attending Loyola and Northwestern universities. But they remained close friends, standing up at each other's weddings and renting space at the same office.
When Morrissey described the strip searches, a rush of questions came to Farley's mind. Where was the local prison-reform group? Why didn't the public know? How could this be happening again in 1996? "When society becomes aware of something and it's universally condemned," he says, "you don't do it anymore. Like forced sterilizations. We've addressed that issue, we've dealt with it. Well, I thought discriminatory strip searches had been universally condemned too."
Farley agreed to work on the case. He and Morrissey believed that the Cook County Department of Corrections was discriminating against all women returning from court, but they decided to represent only women whose cases had been discharged. That way they would have another separate legal argument: that the strip searches were unreasonable. "It's outrageous that you could essentially win your case--be found not guilty or have the charge dismissed--and then have to go through a dehumanizing strip-search procedure," Farley says.
The first step was to find someone willing to be the named plaintiff. To ask a judge to consider whether a policy was illegal, the named plaintiff had to be someone in jail who was likely to be released and who was therefore facing a strip search. Morrissey found the perfect candidate, Kenya Gary, through her lawyer. She was in jail awaiting trial on charges that she'd killed her ex-boyfriend, the father of two of her three children. Articulate and intelligent, the 22-year-old Gary openly talked about the indignities suffered by female inmates. And her attorney believed no jury would convict her, so she was likely to be released.
In the spring of 1996 Kenya Gary was charged with first-degree murder, though the facts of her case pointed to self-defense. Her boyfriend had had a history of stalking and abusing her; two weeks before the killing she'd reported him to the police for striking her with a two-by-four. During the argument that led to his death he punched her. Gary stabbed him defensively and only once. Afterward she called for help, then sat by his side, pressing a towel to his wound to stop the bleeding. She even called 911 a second time, worried that the ambulance was taking too long.
A proud woman from a supportive family, Gary had never been in trouble with the law before. She was a devoted mother and a hard worker. Her youngest child was just three months old at the time of her arrest. Before taking maternity leave, Gary had held two jobs--as a housekeeper and a telemarketer--and spent her free time with her children. Her friends, she says, even teased her for it, calling her a homebody and an old maid. The common refrain was, you don't go nowhere, you don't do nothing. There's nothing out there, she'd reply. Everything important was at home. She would never know this more keenly than when she was in jail.
Yet compared to other women, Gary didn't have it so bad behind bars. The guards couldn't help but like her. When her lawyer visited they pulled him aside and said "I hope you get her out of here" and "She's my little girl." Some enjoyed her company so much that they allowed her to stay up past curfew just to talk with them. Once a guard even brought her a home-cooked meal. It was nothing special--corn bread, greens, meat loaf, and chocolate cake--but to Gary each item was a delicacy. Far from resenting her, the other inmates relied on her to get favors from the guards, like extra underwear, socks, and T-shirts.
But the special treatment didn't blind Gary. She saw how the guards treated other women. "It's not humane," she says. "I've seen some people just straight be dogged, treated like crap." If you're not a favorite, "you're either a bitch or a motherfucker or a stupid inmate. They get real ignorant with you. Real ignorant."
When her attorney mentioned Morrissey's lawsuit Gary readily offered to be the named plaintiff. She had numerous gripes about the strip-search procedure, which she describes as "nasty" and "degrading." She'd had many court dates, and she anticipated many more before her trial--and she didn't appreciate having to disrobe after each one of them. "You're always surrounded. You're never out of anyone's sight. So what is the purpose of being stripped down?"
Gary also believes that some of the worst treatment of inmates occurred during the strip searches. "A lot of things go on that no one knows about," she says. "There was one time they sprayed Lysol on this girl, saying she smelled. Sometimes they don't lock the doors, and the male officers walk in. It's happened numerous times. It's not a mistake."
In November 1996 Morrissey filed Gary v. Sheahan. The strip-search practice, the complaint stated, trampled all over people's rights, entailing "gross invasions" of the right to privacy, "cruel and unusual punishment," and a violation of the right not to be discriminated against "on the basis of gender" and the right not to be subjected to "unreasonable searches."
The suit asked the judge to ban uniform strip searches of female inmates with court-ordered discharges, to award each plaintiff $50,000 in compensatory damages for "emotional and psychological distress, severe mental anguish, anxiety, humiliation, degradation and pain and suffering," and to award them $100,000 each in punitive damages for the "willful and wanton misconduct of the defendant."
Responsibility for defending the sheriff went to assistant state's attorneys David Meyerson and Michael Jacobs (they and the sheriff declined to be interviewed for this article). Later four more attorneys would join the defense team--two from the sheriff's office and two from the private sector (one of them was Chicago's head attorney during its strip-search scandal; in the 80s he was an appellate court judge).
The sheriff's attorneys quickly tried to get the case dismissed, arguing, among other things, that Morrissey failed to "state a cognizable constitutional violation" and that the sheriff should be exempt from prosecution as an individual because as a public official he had "qualified immunity."
They next filed a response in which they didn't dispute Morrissey and Farley's claim that jail employees routinely strip-searched women returning from court. Instead they maintained that men were routinely strip-searched too--so there was no discrimination. They also claimed that the practice was reasonable and necessary to ensure the security of the jail as well as the safety of inmates, corrections staff, and even the public.
Judge David Coar refused to dismiss the case. He did, however, trim the charges, letting stand only Morrissey's claims that the 4th and 14th amendments had been violated--that the searches were unreasonable and that they were discriminatory.
Morrissey figured the key to winning the case was proving that men didn't regularly endure strip searches. If the sheriff's officials didn't find it necessary to strip-search men prior to their release, it would follow that it wasn't necessary or reasonable to strip-search women either. The evidence he needed, beyond the word of former inmates, was inside the jail.
The Cook County Department of Corrections requires guards to keep written records of all body searches. Shortly after Morrissey filed the lawsuit, Judge Coar ordered the sheriff's office to grant him access to the jail to inspect these records and to depose administrators and subordinates.
According to Morrissey, when he requested specific dates to visit the jail, Sheahan's attorney Michael Jacobs left him a voice-mail message saying the dates wouldn't work. The following week Morrissey reached Jacobs and asked which dates would work, but Jacobs wouldn't commit to one. The next time Morrissey confronted him, Jacobs again refused to commit. So Morrissey sat down and wrote the sheriff's attorneys a brief letter listing dates when he was available and asking for their cooperation.
"Each of us has numerous other cases pending," Jacobs and David Meyerson wrote back. "Accordingly, it is . . . inconceivable that you can expect two attorneys to set aside two entire days for these depositions on little more than a week's notice." The lawsuit was less than a month old, they said. They promised to arrange a visit to the jail but said they needed time. They were swamped by "full caseloads," and Morrissey only distracted them with his "myriad of correspondence," which forced them to "expend valuable resources preparing responses as opposed to actually working on substantive issues in the scores of other cases we are responsible for defending, including nearly ten of your cases."
The letter was personal in parts. "It is extremely unprofessional for you to believe that your lawsuit is more important or takes precedence over the hundreds of lawsuits pending against the sheriff in both state and federal court. . . . It is clear that your tactics are meant to harass."
Morrissey had received similarly testy letters from defense attorneys in the past and assumed this one was just another effort to stall for time.
The dispute came before Judge Coar, who read aloud from the letter, then suggested that the sheriff's attorneys brush up on the federal rules regarding civil procedure. Needs such as Morrissey's, the judge said, did take "precedence over other matters." He added that the sheriff's attorneys also had to accommodate Morrissey quickly, "not after the hundreds of cases pending against the sheriff are resolved."
Shortly thereafter, the sheriff's attorneys found time to meet Morrissey and Farley at the jail.
On any given day the 11 sprawling divisions of the Cook County Jail house about 9,000 inmates; 95 percent of them are awaiting trial and either don't have the option to bond out or can't afford to (the staff refers to them as "detainees" to reflect their innocent-until-proved-guilty status).
Innocent or not, people in jail don't have the same privacy rights as free citizens. They're considered a threat to security, and the law permits measures to be taken to reduce that threat. Every new inmate at the Cook County Jail, for instance, undergoes a body-cavity search as well as a strip search. The Cook County Department of Corrections also requires its guards to conduct occasional sweeps of cells; to do random pat-down searches of inmates returning from such in-house places as the infirmary, visiting area, and recreation room; and to do a routine strip search of all "court returns"--male and female.
These searches turn up contraband a couple of times a month, according to Bill Cunningham, one of the sheriff's spokesmen. The most commonly found items are drugs and crudely formed knives.
Each day 1,000 to 1,500 inmates go to court. Afterward they return to the jail through the receiving area with a written judicial notice stating the disposition of their case and their next court date--if they have one. But inmates whose cases have been discharged aren't just free to leave. Administrative workers first must conduct background checks to see if they have other cases pending or warrants against them from other jurisdictions.
From his work on Watson, Morrissey believed that guards didn't distinguish between inmates whose cases had been discharged and those whose hadn't. All went back to their living quarters after court. But what happened in the interim, he learned, seemed to differ for males and females.
That difference was insignificant, the sheriff's attorneys told Morrissey and Farley when they toured the receiving area, and simply a result of space constraints. The women's side of the area had eight bull pens, most capable of holding about 50 inmates. This was more than enough space, the attorneys said, to strip-search the 80 to 100 women who went to court each day. But because there were only ten bull pens for the daily barrage of 1,000 or more male court returns, guards couldn't properly strip-search them in the receiving area. So the male inmates underwent strip searches back in the housing divisions. The difference between procedures for males and females, the attorneys insisted, lay only in where they were strip-searched.
Morrissey and Farley--who noticed that the bull pens looked freshly scrubbed, in contrast to their clients' descriptions--asked to see where the guards strip-searched men. As they walked through each of the men's divisions, Morrissey recalls, groups of inmates were lining up for strip searches. He remembers one of the sheriff's attorneys yelling something like "Hey Joe, isn't this where the guys get strip-searched?" and a guard yelling back, "Yeah, this is where."
Frustrated, Morrissey and Farley felt sure it was all just a show for them. But when they went through the logbooks in which the guards had documented body searches, they saw that men underwent only sporadic strip searches after court. "Each superintendent of the 11 divisions seemed to set up his own rules regarding what type of searches, if any, would be done for prisoners returning from court," Morrissey recalls. "For the most part we found that males got out of the strip search."
Judge Coar's courtroom, on the 14th floor of the Dirksen federal building, is stately, with dark wooden walls and benches--though emerald light emanates from decorative openings in the corners of the room, and the gray carpet contains squares of dizzying diagonal patterns. On the afternoon of March 13, 1997, Morrissey and Farley sat at a counsel table on the left side of the room. Jacobs and Meyerson sat on the right side. The sheriff was absent. Like most public officials, he didn't come to court unless a judge demanded his presence.
At ten to two a clerk called out, "Gary versus Sheahan, preliminary injunction hearing." Morrissey and Farley had filed a motion asking the judge to ban routine strip searches of women prior to their release while this case was pending. The judge would hear evidence from both sides, then weigh the harm strip searches caused women against the harm that not strip-searching them could cause the jail.
Morrissey's strategy was threefold: to show that the strip searches caused women harm, to refute the claim that guards also routinely strip-searched men after court, and to prove that the security of the jail wouldn't be compromised by refraining from routinely strip-searching women whose cases had been discharged.
Proving harm was easy. In papers he'd filed Morrissey had quoted the Seventh Circuit appellate court, which, in its ruling on the Chicago case in 1983, had described strip searches as "demeaning, dehumanizing, undignified, humiliating, terrifying, unpleasant, embarrassing, repulsive, signifying degradation and submission." Testimony from only one former female inmate would suffice. Morrissey called Lorrie to the stand.
Her appearance had changed considerably since the weekend she spent in jail. The shame she'd felt during the strip search had lingered, and three months after her release she asked a surgeon to staple shut most of her stomach. So far she'd knocked off about 50 pounds, though she was still heavy. She wept on the stand as she described the search, saying she'd been "extremely embarrassed."
Next Morrissey called to the stand seven men who'd been locked up at various times between 1991 and 1997. Some had been in jail more than once, some had had multiple court dates during their incarceration, and others had gone to court only once before their cases had been discharged. One by one they testified that after leaving court they had not been strip-searched in the receiving area or back in their divisions. Then Morrissey put a corrections officer on the stand who admitted that he was "quite sure" he didn't strip-search all male court returns.
The defense then presented an officer who'd worked in three male divisions; he said he believed court returns were routinely strip-searched in accordance with the jail's written policy. Another officer testified that he personally strip-searched men returning from court without exception.
To show that strip-searching women prior to their release was unnecessary, Morrissey called to the stand the assistant executive director of the jail, John Maul. As Morrissey understood it, the only justification for strip-searching a woman whose case had been discharged was that when guards sent her back to the housing division she would be mingling with the general population prior to her release. He figured that if she could remain in the receiving area there would be no reason to strip-search her. So why send her back to the housing division?
"She needs to go back to get her personal property," said Maul, referring to a woman's clothing, which corrections staff stored in property bags, and any items she might have left in her cell, such as cosmetics, letters, books, or photos. (The Department of Corrections stored inmates' valuables, such as money and jewelry, in property cages near the receiving area.)
Morrissey asked why guards or clerical workers couldn't bring inmates' clothing to them in the receiving area.
"They could pick up the clothing," Maul said, "but they could not pick up the stuff that's in her cell."
"There's no rationale for bringing them back to the division to pick up their clothing, right?"
"Correct," Maul conceded.
"Now the only other reason you would have for requiring that women go back into [the division] is to pick up whatever incidental items she has in her housing unit, correct?"
"Correct," Maul said.
Many of Morrissey's clients had spent only a few days in jail. They hadn't accumulated any items, and Morrissey wagered that most women who had would choose to ditch these items rather than submit to another strip search. "Now, if a woman . . . told the corrections staff . . . that she didn't want to get those personal items, would she still have to go back to [the housing division] under your orders?"
"No," said Maul.
"So it's your testimony that it's certainly feasible to allow women to be discharged right out of that receiving room, isn't that correct?"
"If they agree to waive picking up the property in their cell, it's certainly possible."
"So there is really no reason requiring those women to be strip-searched, correct, because they're not going back into the jail . . . correct?
"That's possible, yes."
One of Morrissey's last questions was, "So what you're saying is we strip-search women because we have to bring them back to pick up their cigarettes? Is that your rationale for the strip search?"
"It's their property," Maul replied. "If they want to go back to pick it up we certainly have to let them go back, because there's a monetary value to it."
On cross-examination Meyerson asked, "Whether they go back to their housing division or not, the smuggling of contraband into the institution is still a possibility, even if they were kept in the receiving room and released directly from there?"
"Correct," said Maul.
Ernesto Velasco--who'd worked in the jail for 22 years, rising through the ranks to become executive director--testified last. Morrissey immediately established that the lawsuit had made Velasco aware that guards weren't routinely strip-searching men. "And what did you do once that was brought to your attention?" Morrissey asked.
Velasco replied that he'd held a staff meeting with the superintendents of the housing divisions "to make sure that the policies of the department were being carried out" and to tell them that "it was my intention to make sure that every detainee that came back from court got strip-searched."
After Velasco stepped down, the judge took a 15-minute recess, then returned to the bench ready to rule. "The facts in this case are not particularly complicated," he said. "It's clear, crystal clear in this case, that for a period dating back to at least 1991 female inmates of the Cook County Department of Corrections returning from court have been routinely strip-searched. It's also crystal clear that there has been no such uniform strip-searching of male inmates going back to 1991 and as recently as two weeks ago."
He went on. "No inmate should be strip-searched unless there is a good and valid reason for doing so. To the extent that there was no good and valid reason for searching male inmates, it's difficult to understand what the good and valid reason was for . . . conducting strip searches of female inmates returning from court."
The judge found that the discrepancy caused female inmates "irreparable harm," and he banned routine strip searches of them prior to their release. Strip searches, he said, would be permitted only if the women chose to go back into their housing division to retrieve their personal items, since allowing inmates who'd been exposed to the public to mingle with inmates back in the jail was "a legitimate concern." Those who did not choose to go back, he said, would remain in the receiving area while someone brought them their clothing.
The sheriff's attorneys immediately filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider his ruling. When that failed, they appealed the ruling, then filed a motion asking him to stay the order until the appeal could be heard. They claimed that the order was ambiguous, that it impeded the discharge process for female inmates, and that it "significantly disrupted" jail operations (though the executive director of the jail would later testify that he wasn't aware of any such disruption).
"When apprised of the fact that the men were not being strip-searched, the director of the jail had a meeting," the judge told the sheriff's attorneys at a hearing on the motion. "No testimony at the meeting said you are compromising the security at the jail, you are putting the lives of the guards at risk. It was a matter-of-fact kind of concern, like, you know, this is something we need to take a look at. No specific directions were forthcoming from that meeting. No orders to the supervisors at the individual units that this must stop and that males must be strip-searched immediately and heads will roll if that doesn't happen."
The judge didn't grant the sheriff's request to stay the order. "I find the motion outrageous," he said. "Absolutely outrageous."
After the first line of defense against the discrimination charge failed--when they could no longer claim that guards routinely strip-searched men too--the sheriff's attorneys set out to justify the unequal treatment. In documents they filed with the court they argued that the law permitted different treatment of male and female inmates as long as they presented different security concerns. A sworn affidavit from a sergeant stated that it was easier to pass contraband to females than to males in Cook County courthouses because there weren't always isolated holding cells for females. As a result, female inmates sometimes used public restrooms and were handcuffed to chairs or rails in insecure places such as witness rooms, hallways, or administrative offices, where they could easily have contact with outsiders.
Morrissey and Farley thought this argument was nonsense. Jail officials had already admitted before the judge that the possibility of acquiring contraband at court existed for inmates of both sexes, since both had unsupervised visits with relatives and attorneys. And since nine times more men than women went to court each day, Morrissey and Farley figured, it was doubtful that women posed a greater security risk.
In reality, guards rarely recover weapons or contraband from any court returns. Bill Cunningham of the sheriff's press office says that's because the strip searches act as a deterrent. Approximately 260,000 strip searches were conducted on court returns in 1997, and guards documented only 24 attempts to smuggle contraband. The jail doesn't break down its statistics by gender, but Cunningham says that from what he's heard men and women are equally likely to try to smuggle contraband.
In another affidavit, Dennis Andrews, chief of operations in the receiving area, claimed that 90 percent of the women released in the month and a half since the judge's ruling had willingly submitted to a strip search. The sheriff's attorneys, Morrissey says, "were basically saying, this is a nuisance lawsuit because women want to be strip-searched."
Morrissey and Farley were suspicious of the statistic, even though they knew that Kenya Gary, who had recently been acquitted, had grudgingly agreed to one last strip search. "You're stuck between a rock and a hard place on that decision," she now says. Yet unlike most of the women, she'd been locked up for a year and had accumulated shoes, night clothes, photographs of her children, books, letters, and other belongings that she wanted to retrieve. She'd also heard that she would be more comfortable awaiting her release in the housing division, where she could eat and sleep.
In response to Judge Coar's order to stop routine strip searches, Andrews had written a memo instructing the corrections staff not to strip-search female inmates prior to their release unless they asked to go back to their housing division. He also prepared two forms the women could choose between. The first said that an inmate's clothing would be brought to her in the receiving area but that it was her responsibility to retrieve any personal property left in her cell at some later time; she also had to agree not to hold the department responsible for any items left in her cell. The second form simply said that the inmate would go back into the housing division and retrieve her clothing and personal items herself. Neither form mentioned anything about a strip search.
Morrissey and Farley obtained a list of recently released women from the sheriff's office and asked them about the corrections staff's policy. Morrissey was livid at what he heard. "They basically thrust the form saying 'I want to go back to the division' at the women. A lot of women were not shown the other form. And if they were, they were told not to sign it if they wanted to get out quicker. The sheriff's office decided to thumb its nose at Judge Coar and to use the memo and the forms to buttress the case that being strip-searched was inconsequential to women."
Morrissey didn't know the extent to which the sheriff personally controlled or even knew about the procedure in the bull pens in the wake of the judge's order. He wanted to depose Sheahan to find out, but the sheriff's attorneys put him off. Morrissey figured that it didn't matter whether the sheriff had firsthand knowledge of the current policy; as the judge would later say, "It's the sheriff's responsibility to make sure the order gets followed."
Morrissey interpreted the failure to implement real change as deliberate defiance on the sheriff's part, and in early June he and Farley asked the judge to hold the sheriff in contempt of court.
The sheriff's attorneys next went back to denying that women received unequal treatment. At a June 11 status hearing Jacobs and Meyerson argued that guards had never strip-searched all female inmates with court-ordered discharges, since women in the special-needs unit--pregnant inmates, drug addicts, and inmates requiring medical and psychological care, who together made up one-third of the female inmates--had been and continued to be exempt.
"We have gotten this far in this case and the defendants don't know that there's another unit out there that has a different [strip-search practice]?" the judge said. "Who's in charge out there?"
Meyerson explained that the executive director was in charge, because the sheriff had many obligations. His office patrolled the unincorporated areas of Cook County and provided services and security to the 12 city and suburban courthouses--in addition to running the jail, the second-largest detention center in the country. "There's 9,300 inmates there," Meyerson said. "There's hundreds of officers--"
The judge interrupted. "Every time something comes up the answer is it's a big jail, it's a big jail. Well, there are individuals out there who deserve to be treated better. That's not an excuse for everything that happens out there. . . . Somebody--somebody--whether it's the sheriff or the executive director or somebody out there should know what's going on, and they are not telling you. When you are forced to come in here and say, well, 'Gee, we just found out that there's a whole other unit out there' this late in the case, and that the procedures are different, I don't know how you can represent a client like that."
Meyerson tried to explain why he didn't have such information at his fingertips. "The director simply mandates relatively broad policies and gives its superintendents some discretion as to how to run their division. So it's fair to say the director is not going to know at any given moment what's going on in a division unless that superintendent reports up to him specifically. I hate to use the big jail, but it--" Meyerson stopped himself. "I won't use that."
"I have gone back and read the jail cases in this district," the judge responded. "The term 'barn boss' used to come up a lot. There were reforms, and the reforms were to do away with the barn-boss system and to have a uniform system for the jail. The barn-boss system was perceived to be an abuse. This sounds like we haven't gotten rid of the barn-boss system. . . . Each unit out there is operating differently."
"Your Honor, if I could just say one thing in defense of the jail," Meyerson said. "The American Correctional Association was out there last week for accreditation purposes, and they gave them the highest marks possible for a county jail nationally. So these are the people who are responsible for investigating the jail and all facets of jail operations, and apparently they were quite impressed."
The judge replied, "I don't care what accrediting agency took a look at it and said that they were good. And that may be the worst indictment of the county jail system across the country that I've ever heard of. If this is the best, when the executive director doesn't know what's going on in the units, I mean, I find that shocking, absolutely shocking."
In the end the judge didn't seem to be impressed that the women in the special-needs unit weren't strip-searched. The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment required equal treatment of "similarly situated" people, and "similarly situated" male inmates weren't being strip-searched either.
At the contempt hearings in mid-June, 12 women released after the judge's March order banning routine searches testified that they'd been unwillingly strip-searched prior to their release. Some said they'd signed a form but hadn't known what it meant.
Operations chief Dennis Andrews told the judge that while he couldn't be sure that "every day, every minute" guards were showing women both sets of request forms, he'd instructed them to do so. He also said that he'd seen some signatures on requests to remain in the receiving area. These signatures, the sheriff's attorneys argued, proved that women had choices and that the sheriff had fully complied with the judge's order. "The option is being given to return to general population or to remain in receiving," Meyerson said. "That is being done. That's what the order states."
But Morrissey and Farley believed that this was a ridiculously narrow interpretation of the judge's order. They argued that women needed to be specifically told that they had the right to refuse the strip search.
Meyerson told the judge that while some officers did go "above and beyond" their duties and had informed women of their "strip-search rights" out of "conscientiousness," the order itself "did not indicate that this advising of rights was to be accomplished."
It was true that the judge's order didn't explicitly state that inmates had to be informed of the consequences of their choice, says Morrissey. But knowing that one of their options entailed a strip search and the other didn't was vital information.
The hearings ended without word from Judge Coar on how he might rule, though a finding of contempt would have enabled him to impose fines, appoint an interim official to run the jail, even lock up the sheriff. But the judge did state, "Any order I issue with respect to the sheriff will have every i dotted, every t crossed. . . . I will not leave it to reasonable interpretation again with respect to the sheriff."
In September the judge ordered the sheriff to help Morrissey reach former and current inmates who were potentially eligible to join the lawsuit. Since the statute of limitations for civil suits is two years, the prospective pool included everyone released after November 1994. Sheahan's attorneys promptly provided Morrissey with the names of 11,000 former inmates, and Morrissey sent out letters notifying them about the lawsuit.
Morrissey also sent the sheriff's attorneys copies of a notice that the judge had approved for posting in the county jail, courthouses, and detention centers. But when one of Morrissey's paralegals called Jacobs a few days later to arrange a time to inspect the placement of the notices, Jacobs informed her that they had yet to be posted and that the sheriff intended to place them in the jail only.
This time the judge summoned the sheriff to court to explain himself.
The day before he was to appear, Sheahan sent a statement to the judge apologizing for not promptly posting Morrissey's notice. He wrote that he'd been advised that the judge's order to post it contained "insufficient information" and that he'd been under the impression "that it would be better and more appropriate to post the same notice that was being mailed to potential class [action suit] members." Sheahan assured the judge that the notices had since been posted. "There, of course, was no intention, and I wish to stress that there was no intention or desire, to refuse to post notices as directed by the court." Rather, he wrote, there was only a misguided effort to attempt to post more informative and complete notices.
Morrissey immediately filed a response stating, "This is the second time that the Sheriff has sought to justify his noncompliance with an order entered by this Court by questioning the scope and clarity of an order." He also wrote that Sheahan's statement that the notices hadn't been posted because of insufficient information didn't explain why "he was also refusing to post the notices in the court facilities."
The next day Sheahan, flanked by an army of attorneys, walked into Judge Coar's courtroom for the first time. But he didn't speak. One of his private defense attorneys, William Quinlan, told the judge that the problem stemmed from miscommunication.
The judge appeared to accept the sheriff's apology, according to the Chicago Tribune, but he expressed concern that Sheahan "was using 'delaying tactics' and felt he could decide which court orders he would obey."
Another one of Sheahan's attorneys, John Kennedy, says that having to come into court to discuss the perception that he was defying the judge's order was "anathema" to Sheahan, a dedicated officer who considered orders from a federal judge the "law of the land."
Meanwhile droves of women were responding to Morrissey's letter about the lawsuit. Morrissey and Farley were the legal minds behind the case, but one of their paralegals, Gina Watson, was the main person talking to the plaintiffs about their experiences, gauging the emotional impact the strip searches had had on them, and helping determine which women might do well on the stand.
An Alabama native, Watson began to think of going into law after her father, a foundry worker, died in 1982 of a work-related lung disease. He and a number of coworkers who'd developed the same disease settled with the foundry for what Watson considered a paltry sum, which left her mother little after her father died. She says the experience left her "extremely sensitive" to injustice, and she began to see law as a way to "combat powerlessness." She believed that Gary v. Sheahan would do just that. "Many of the women we deal with, they're what people would consider being at the bottom of society. They don't have voices really."
Watson talked to hundreds of women on the phone. She says some were mistrustful and reserved, others were forthcoming and graphic. Most of the women expressed anger about what had happened and thanked Watson for listening. Over and over they said, "I thought nobody cared."
After a while Watson believed she had a good grasp of what went on in the Cook County Jail. "Again and again you hear this story told by a different woman in slightly different words and language. After you hear hundreds of women, literally, telling you the same story, you have to believe them. Every day I listen to all these stories that are just horrible. The idea of a woman standing in a roomful of strangers, being on her period, having a tampon ripped out of her, having to stand there bleeding all over herself, becoming so sick from the whole situation that she throws up all over herself--those kind of things, they stay with you."
To inspire the women's confidence, Watson tried to exude a sense of calm and control, to strike a balance between being sensitive and professionally distant. But at times, she admits, "I've just broken down after hearing them."
A woman named Shirley told Watson she was embarrassed because she was in the middle of her period, so she asked permission to go to the back of the bull pen during a strip search. She said the guard told her to "shut the F up" and threatened to kick her. "She had on these combat boots. I'll never forget how they looked." Shirley dripped blood on the floor while doing jumping jacks. "It was just disgusting. I felt lower than a dog."
For some women the experience conjured up long-buried memories. "I was raped when I was 15," says Shirley, now in her 40s. "I could almost compare it to that. You can't put it in words. You really can't. Makes you feel like you want to crawl up under a rock and stay there. Maybe it's a job to them. But everybody who comes in there isn't a repeat offender, and they could kind of have some sympathy for people who never experienced nothing like that. You know, 'This is your first time here, and this is what you gotta go through.' Maybe it wouldn't have been such a big shock."
Watson heard over and over that if the inmates didn't cough and squat just so during the strip searches, the guards forced them to do it again and again, even after they'd done it correctly. She heard repeatedly that male guards routinely passed by, as did male inmates in charge of cleaning the area. And she heard women say that it wasn't unusual for female guards to make suggestive and lewd comments or gestures to the inmates while they were naked.
And she heard stories of other abuses. A woman named Deborah told Watson she once saw a guard open a young inmate's cell and allow another female inmate in to sexually assault her. The young inmate pleaded with the woman. Deborah said that when she complained to the guard she was told to shut up and mind her own business.
"When I first started hearing these things," says Watson, "I thought, this is unbelievable. I just can't understand that a system like this is allowed to continue. It's their own world there. They're in control. I really don't think that Mr. Sheahan or any of his people really care about the women as long as they process them in and out."
Watson, an African-American, found it particularly disturbing that most of the inmates she talked to and most of the guards they complained about were black women. It bothered her that an oppressed group had so easily turned into oppressors of their own people when given the opportunity.
Watson interviewed many women who'd been released in the seven months after the judge banned routine strip searches--and based on their stories, she concluded that nothing had changed at the jail since the ban went into effect. A dozen women released after the contempt hearings in June signed affidavits saying they'd been strip-searched against their will and sent back to their cells even though they had no personal items to retrieve.
"I was raised with the idea that the law was obeyed and respected, that a judge had power, and what a judge said was to be followed," Watson says. "The sheriff's people don't do that. Every time a judge has ordered something be done, they have not complied immediately."
One of the women Watson interviewed was Stephanie D., a 35-year-old mother of two. One evening in October she sits in a room at her workplace, her arms folded across her chest as she recounts the brief time she spent in jail. She talks rapidly, stopping only to cry.
"I curse like a drunken sailor," she confesses. "I ain't professin' to be no sweet innocent person. I gossip. I criticize people. Ridicule. Place judgment. Most women do that. I'm not professin' to be perfect. But things that could get you known? None of that. I'd never been in jail. Never stole a thing."
Last summer Stephanie's life seemed to be coming together after a few trying years in which she'd split with her husband and placed her mother in a nursing home. She was dating again and beginning to let go of the guilt she felt about handing her mother over to strangers. She had a good job as a security guard. She'd dyed her hair orange blond. And she'd won $750 playing the lottery.
On Saturday, July 12, 1997--four months after Judge Coar had banned routine strip searches--she took $100 of her winnings and bought her sons, ages nine and ten, a rebuilt Nintendo, their favorite game. She planned to surprise them with it that evening.
Later that day a police officer pulled her over near 79th and Vincennes for running a red light. She'd made the mistake of leaving her driver's license at home. The officer instructed her to follow the squad car to the station at 85th and Green, where a background check revealed an outstanding warrant for her arrest for contributing to the neglect of her children.
Back in 1989 a misunderstanding with her children's baby-sitter had escalated beyond her wildest imagination. "Because I didn't come back when I told the girl I would, she called the police," Stephanie says. The police in turn called the Department of Children and Family Services. Stephanie had straightened everything out in neglect court, but she hadn't known that she was wanted in criminal court as well, on a misdemeanor charge resulting from the same incident, or that when she missed a hearing the judge issued a warrant.
In the station Stephanie assumed the police had made a mistake and that she would soon be let go. She was a security guard after all, licensed to carry a gun. She was no criminal.
But the warrant was valid, and the police, because it was Saturday, transferred her to the County Jail. "I thought it was the inmates who would get me," she says. "But it's the guards who do it to you as far as abuse."
In the receiving area Stephanie and other newcomers passed a group of male guards. Tears well up as she recalls hearing one of them say, "I smell somebody's rotten pussy. One of you hos' pussy stinks." She couldn't believe her ears. "No one tells them to stop or anything. These were the sheriff's men!"
On Monday Stephanie went to court. She says it was over so fast she didn't see the judge's face. The case was dismissed.
"Just imagine, the judge tells you you're free--and then you sit around for hours," she says. "You better not say nothing. Don't ask for any water. Don't ask for food and say you're hungry. When they say, 'Come on, let's go,' you think you're leaving. But no." She says she was never offered a form to sign. "'Get over there and take your clothes off.' 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.
"I felt like I was a dirty dog. Like I was an animal. Like all my privacy, any kind of right as a woman, as a person, had been violated. I felt angry. I felt humiliated. I felt embarrassed for the older women. I felt really uncomfortable too because there were people sitting outside the glass. It was like a freak show. Everybody wants to see titties. Then you're smiled at a little bit, like, 'I like what I saw.' No one told you you had a right not to be strip-searched. They never tell you that you have a choice. If a judge ruled that that was not supposed to happen, it was not supposed to happen--whether I knew it or not."
She says she could almost have expected this type of treatment from men. But from women? She'd commiserated with women she didn't know in laundries and at bus stops. She'd shared her life with women who were total strangers, and they'd shared theirs--simply because they were women. "If you try to tell another woman something, she's going to listen."
But not the guards in the jail. "They were like, 'Bitch, what you want with me?' To be told 'Sit down and shut up' and 'Get out of my face' and 'Didn't I tell you to shut your ass up?' You'd never heard her voice and seen the hatred in her eyes. Because she looks like your sister. And her hair is fixed like the lady's down the street. But if you look past the French roll and the pretty fingernails and you look in her face, there's something real ugly in her eyes. It's hard and it's cold and it's demeaning to you. It's the I-am-not-your-friend look. That's the look, and they know how to wear it real good. I know they're under stress, but you know what? I got stress too. But come on, when was the last time you told someone, 'Bitch, I'll break your neck?'"
Stephanie returned from court at about 3 PM but didn't leave the jail until after midnight. On the way out, she says, "You go to this room and they stamp your papers and you get your property. I'm like, 'You all can keep that.' I just wanted to get outside."
Once home she slept. In the morning, she says, "I cried. I hugged my kids. I scrubbed and showered and cut my hair."
The experience changed her career plans. Ironically, she'd become a security guard as a stepping-stone to working as a corrections officer and eventually as a police officer. "I'm not one of them," she now says. "I cannot hold a job exercising authority. I would never want anyone to be afraid of me."
She also says she's still suspicious of almost everyone--strangers as well as people she knows. She got rid of her car, thinking, implausibly, that the friend who'd cosigned for it had orchestrated the whole arrest, and she wanted him out of her life. Her self-esteem plummeted. "I've never felt the same. I never feel pretty."
When Stephanie received Morrissey's letter about the lawsuit in September, she responded immediately. Initially she agreed to join the suit, but she later changed her mind, worried that someone somehow might retaliate. Watson asked her to come to the office, but Stephanie kept blowing her off. "I thought she was up to something. I was afraid. It went on for over a month. When they wanted me to sign an affidavit I wouldn't. I was scared."
A couple of days before Sheahan appeared in court that October Morrissey filed another petition to hold the sheriff in contempt for continuing to violate the judge's strip-search order. He and Farley wanted Stephanie to testify at the contempt hearing. "Tom and Bob came out to my house," she says, "and I talked to them. And how angry I started to get! And how frustrated! I would snap. After talking to them, the tension released. And they were hurt for me. And it wasn't fake. Some of the anger was going away. They were like therapists to a degree. They never said anything. They just listened to me. There was never coaxing."
She agreed to go to court. But when Watson called to confirm the date, Stephanie lost her courage. "I said, 'You think you can just call me out of the blue?' 'Cause I'm scared and trying to think of a way to get out of it. And she let me holler. That woman stayed on the phone with me for two hours, and she listened to me and all of what I had to say. She said, 'We can't force you to do anything, and we don't want to. You don't have to come.' She even said, 'Go on and get some sleep.' And I'd bring up something else--and the more I fussed, the more I felt relieved. Then I'm like, to hell with this. I can't keep walking around feeling like this. I haven't done anything. I am a mother. I am someone's daughter. I am somebody's sister. I am well respected in the neighborhood in which I reside. And that's when I said, I'm going to go through with this until the end."
At the contempt hearing, on October 21, Stephanie sat in the courtroom talking with two other former inmates who'd been released since June. Both of them claimed they hadn't been given the opportunity to opt out of the strip search either.
The sheriff's six attorneys sat on the opposite side of the room. Watson sensed that their presence intimidated the women, so she attempted to shore up their courage. Your stories are strong, she told them, and you all look great.
Stephanie was glad to hear that. She'd fussed over what to wear, finally deciding on a cashmere turtleneck sweater and a skirt in earth tones. Then she noticed two of the sheriff's attorneys shooting her and the other women supercilious glances. "You could see the mockery," she says.
Watson also noticed, and she was flabbergasted. "We were just sitting there," she recalls, "when David Meyerson and Michael Jacobs turned around to look at us--snickering like two schoolboys."
A week earlier, during a hearing on the contempt petition, Meyerson had told the judge that the sheriff didn't fully understand the strip-search order and that he'd been waiting for "additional guidelines from the court." According to Morrissey, the judge had appeared frustrated. "I don't see how anybody who was at that [June contempt] hearing or who read that order could come away not understanding the basis upon which the order was entered," the judge said. "So to come in here now and say, you know, we're confused, we didn't really understand what it is that you wanted [us] to do, I think, is not accurate--cannot be accurate."
"Judge Coar was sending us a very strong message: Get your house in order," recalls defense attorney John Kennedy. And that, he acknowledges, meant giving women about to be released "informed consent" about strip searches. Kennedy says the jail brass had immediately gone to work devising new procedures. The sheriff's private attorneys then filed legal papers arguing that the Department of Corrections had always made a good-faith effort to comply with the judge's order and that the new "proactive" measures, which went "beyond the four corners" of the judicial order, rendered the contempt petition moot.
Now Stephanie and the two other women were in the courtroom waiting to testify, but the judge came out and, after consulting with the attorneys from both sides, said the hearing was canceled. He asked the attorneys to meet him later in his chambers. According to Morrissey, the judge had reviewed the sheriff's department's new procedures, and at the meeting he and the attorneys worked out the final details.
That day the new procedures went into effect. Jail staff began informing inmates with court-ordered discharges that they had choices--including the right to forgo the strip search. The staff posted a notice in the bull pens, in English and Spanish, informing women of their options. And they altered the request forms to clearly state that returning to the division entailed a strip search and remaining in the receiving area didn't. The department also increased the receiving-area staff, adding a female sergeant to supervise the discharge procedure, an administrative clerk to process discharges, and an officer to assist women who chose to return to the division.
The Department of Corrections also began keeping records, including the date and time of each discharge, of whether the inmate chose to return to the division or remain in the receiving area, and the name of the officer on duty who advised her of her options when it came to strip searches.
One week later the department reported to Judge Coar that 86 of the 101 women released since the changes took effect had opted out of the strip search. Three and a half weeks later the department reported that it had eliminated 84 percent of strip searches of women about to be released. The judge commended the sheriff's attorneys on the new procedures. "I think this is a major step in the right direction," he said, "and I think that really this gets at the heart of the problem."
The sheriff's attorneys too were pleased, because Morrissey finally had nothing to complain about. "Tom Morrissey's silence speaks volumes," Kennedy later said. He called the new procedures an "unequivocal success," adding that the jail administration was "behind the process that's in place, and the staff is committed to that process."
However, the contempt charge was still hanging over the sheriff. William Quinlan asked the judge to dismiss it, since everything was working well now.
Farley found the request objectionable. To allow a defendant to come in seven months after the original court order and do "what he was supposed to do in the first place" would "indirectly reward someone for improper behavior," he told the judge.
Quinlan reminded the judge that he was considering not criminal contempt, but civil contempt, which is intended primarily to compel compliance with a court order rather than to punish. "There is no basis to have any finding if, in fact, there is compliance," he said.
Four months have since passed, and Judge Coar has yet to rule on the contempt charge (or on whether Morrissey can depose Sheahan). And although he'd indicated that the women were likely to prevail in their lawsuit, he has yet to rule on whether the strip-search practice at the jail violated their constitutional rights. He's expected to rule any day. If he rules in favor of the women, about 11,800 former inmates would be entitled to compensation, though victors in a class-action suit rarely respond to notices informing them of the outcome; typically fewer than 5 percent collect any damages. Whether women who respond would receive a flat sum as members of a group or individual sums based on their personal experiences would have to be determined.
Meanwhile, Morrissey is pressing on with Wells's and Lorrie's individual strip-search suits, which are pending in front of other judges and don't depend on Judge Coar's final decision. And the sheriff's office continues to report that the women who chose to submit to a strip search remain a small minority.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): cover illustration by Rebecca Jane Gleason; Sheriff Michael Sheehan uncredited photo (inside).