D.C. Jail officials agreed yesterday to suspend for 10 days their policy of routinely requiring "strip" and "squat" searches for arrested women who are to be held in jail overnight before a judge has heard the charges against them. The temporary agreement was reached after lawsuit to prohibit such searches was filed yesterday in U.S. Distric Court.
The officials also agreed that they will halt another procedure in which women are required to remove all their clothes and then are sprayed with an unidentified chemical, apparently in an effort to destroy body and head lice. The jail has agreed that for the 10-day period, spraying, if necessary, will be directed only by medical personnel.
The agreement was prompted by a lawsuit filed by four women, including Mary Morgan, 38, the wife of pediatrician and author Benjamin Spock. The women were arrested and charged with trespassing during a peaceful demonstration at the White House on June 2. They were protesting planned budget cuts in the federal health care system.
The controversy is similar to one at the Arlington County jail in 1979 in which county sheriff's deputies as a matter of policy strip-searched a woman who had been arrested for allegedly eating food on a Metro train. The charge later was dropped, but the publicity surrounding her case eventually led to a new Virginia law stopping such searches for most misdemeanors.
In a sworn statement filed with the court, Morgan said that when she strenuously objected to the strip search and asked to call her attorney, the female guard on duty summoned three other female guards and warned Morgan that "if I did not cooperate, they would take my clothes off forcefully."
After she did strip and squat before the female guards, apparently in an attempt to dislodge contragand concealed in the body cavity, Morgan said she was then sprayed for "lice and crabs" with a substance that the guards could not identify. Morgan said in the sworn statement that when she tried to protect her genital area from the spray, a female guard "threatened to physically force the chemical spray nozzle between my legs."
The Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit yesterday, argued in court papers that arrested men, who are held overnight in the central cellblock at District police headquarters, are not automatically required to submit to a strip search.
A police department order issued to April 1979, directs that such searches will be conducted only when a police officer has reason to suspect that the arrested person is concealing weapons or other contraband. Men are not required to submit to the chemical spray, the lawsuit said.
Pending a further court hearing in the case, tentatively scheduled for July 1, jail officials have agreed to apply that same standard to women held overnight at the D.C. Jail.
In federal court yesterday, Don Soskin, chief of judicial affairs for the D.C. Department of Corrections, said that "strip searches are required to maintain legitimate security interests of the institution." Soskin said the major concern at the jail is possible concealment of narcotics, money and weapons.
In an additional claim in the same lawsuit, Mark Allen Kleinman, who are arrested during that same demonstration, and two of the women arrested also contended that they were held in an unventilated police van.