A LOT OF NEW administration people are going to be house-hunting in the Washington area soon, and some of them will surely consider Arlington County as a suitable place to live. Housing costs are high there, but the schools are still considered good, and there are a lot of fellow Republicans living there who have worked for the federal government and can show them the ropes. But there is something else about Arlington that real estate agents will never mention, so allow me. If you are thinking of living in Arlington, you should know that Arlington is also the home of the World's Safest Jail.

Now you might not think this is relevant to you, because you are, after all, a good Republican who has come to Washington to serve your country, and the last thing you intend to do is get into trouble. Well, Arlington County is not exactly full of desperadoes masquerading as GS 13s, and let me tell you that a lot perfectly respectable people who live in Arlington felt the same way you do. But they did little things like eat a sandwich on a subway train, and got arrested and then went to Sheriff Jim Gondles' jail.

You won't find any drugs or guns or other contraband in Jim Gondles' jail. Nosiree. He knows how to keep all those criminals from hiding contraband on their bodies. The minute the suspects come in, the deputies throw them into a cell, force them to take their clothes off and then they visually check to see if the prisoner is hiding anything. This procedure is called a strip search.

People who criticize the strip-search policy say things like it's degrading and inhumane. It is, but there is more to it than that. It leaves a legacy of hate. Despite all the constitutional safeguards, the Miranda warnings and guidelines for fair treatment of suspects, a person who has just been arrested and jailed feels that he is the most vulnerable, helpless person in the world. It is you, alone, against a lot of uniformed people who have handcuffs, guns and jail cells to put you in. They not only have the symbols of power and authority, they have power and authority and there isn't a whole lot the suspect can do about it.

Arlington isn't the only place that strip-searches all suspects. Chicago police used to do strip and body cavity searches of women until the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of 10,000 women. One woman was told by the matron to cooperate, or else she would bring six men into the cell to do the search for her, according to the ACLU suit.That's the kind of experience that teaches a suspect just what abuse of power really means.

Jim Gondles and his guards don't do this for fun. After all, this is Arlington, not Chicago. They do it because six years ago a suspect being detained in a police car pulled a gun on a policeman and shot him. Ever since then, the Arlington sheriff's guards strip search every suspect who comes into that jail, no matter how slight the offense, or how short the stay. Since every one has to be strip searched, a suspect who is there for 20 minutes and a lawyer who is arrested for drunk driving all get the same treatment as someone who is arrested for murder or burglary. Strip-searching someone who has been picked up for eating a sandwich on the subway is, of course, outrageous. It's unnecessary. But how necessary is it to strip search anyone?

Sheriff Jim Gondles is the only sheriff in the metropolitan area who thinks that the only way to ensure safety in his jail is to subject each and every suspect to a strip search. It is worthwhile pointing out here that his policy was upheld by U.S. District Court Judge Oren Lewis -- who hasn't been nominated for any Thomas Paine awards lately -- so the sheriff is not quite alone in his thinking. But it is equally worthwhile pointing out here that a lot of other jurisdictions have had very high success rates in keeping their jail personnel alive simply by thoroughly patting down the bodies of suspects while they have their clothes on. Tiny pearl-handled Berettas are not the usual guns of choice these days, and anything else is simply not that easy to conceal. As for drugs, well, they may be more easily hidden on or in the body than a gun, and if someone ends up smoking grass or snorting cocaine in his jail cell, then so be it. That seems a far lesser evil than subjecting every suspect picked up in Arlington to a strip-search.

Jim Gondles may be running the safest jail in America but it's but very safe for the Constitution, which does, after all, have something to say about unreasonable searches. But the sheriff has been sticking to his guns on this one, refusing to change his policy until a judge orders him to, and ignoring pressure from his fellow Democrats who see this policy as nothing but political trouble. The Republican-controlled county board can't force the sheriff to change his policy, and its members apparently don't want to get involved in the controversy, which is understandable enough. But if the board members don't have to worry about the jail, they do have to worry about the county. And as story after story surfaces about these strip searches -- stories that are particulary damaging when the victims have been picked up on minor offenses -- there is one thing you can say about Jim Gondles' jail. It may be the safest jail in America, but it's giving Arlington County a bad name.