D.C. Jail Officials have agreed to end their policy of routinely requiring "strip" and "squat" searches for women arrested and held in custody overnight, according to a lawyer for four women who sued the city over the practice.
Moreover, corrections officers will also no longer be allowed to regularly spray women with a chemical, which apparently has been done in an effort to destroy body and head lice.
The jail officials' agreement with the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has been submitted for formal approval to U.S. District Court Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr., who is expected to sign it soon.
The ACLU, which filed the lawsuit, argued in court papers that men who were arrested and held in custody overnight were not automatically required to submit to the strip searches. The men are held overnight in the central cellblock at D.C. police headquarters, but women are taken directly to the D.C. Jail, which prompted jail officials to take greater security precautions.
Under the agreement, jail officials will be allowed to conduct strip searches of women only if officials suspect they are hiding contraband, weapons or evidence of a crime and the only way to find it would be through a "strip" or "squat" search, according to Nina Kraut, one of the lawyers representing the women. The search must be carried out in private, she said.
In cases of women suspected of carrying body or head lice, jail officials must have a physician or nurse examine them and authorize a specific treatment before any action can be taken, Kraut said.
Whenever women are forced to submit to strip searches or are sprayed for lice, jail officials will be required to keep detailed records of the cases and names of the officials who authorized and carried out the action, she said.
One of the women who sued was Mary Morgan, 38, the wife of pediatrician and author Dr. Benjamin Spock. The four women were forced to submit to strip searches after they 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.
Almost immediately after the suit was filed, jail officials agreed to temporarily suspend their "strip" and "squat" search policy pending further discussions, which ultimately led to the agreement.
City officials declined comment until the agreement is formally approved by Robinson. Jail officials have said that strip searches were used to help maintain the facility's security.
The controversy is similar to one that developed at the Arlington County jail in 1979 after county sheriff's deputies, as a matter of routine policy, strip-searched a women who had been arrested for allegedly eating food on a Metro train. The charge later was dropped, but the publicity surrounding her case ultimately led to a new Virginia law banning such searches in most misdemeanor cases.
Kraut said the main objective of the suit was to halt the search practices, but the proposal also calls for the city to pay the women nominal damages of $450 each.
A separate allegation in the case -- that D.C. police hold prisoners in unventilated vans -- has not been settled, and a court hearing on that issue is scheduled for Monday, she said.