The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He had marbles implanted in an unusual body part. Now he’s suing the prison that removed them.

The small marbles, inserted just beneath the skin, studded his penis for four years. Adrian F. King Jr., with encouragement from his now-deceased fiancée, decided to significantly alter one of his most sensitive body parts in 2008, tattooing the organ at the same time as the surgical modification.

But the marbles would not remain in his body forever.

King has been serving a prison sentence since March 2012. In January 2013, a chain of events unfolded at Huttonsville Correctional Center in West Virginia that led to what King described as a coerced removal of the marbles.

The marbles, and the excision of them, are now at the center of a lawsuit that pits King’s bodily integrity against a prison’s ability to search prisoners and confiscate contraband.

King’s body modification is known as pearling. Or, to the Filipino seafarers among whom it is popular, “bolitas.” As the Atlantic described it in 2013, “Many Filipino sailors make small incisions in their penises and slide tiny plastic or stone balls — the size of M&M’s — underneath the skin in order to enhance sexual pleasure for prostitutes and other women they encounter in port cities, especially in Rio de Janeiro.”

When inmates are processed, their tattoos and piercings are photographed; it is illegal to acquire new tattoos or piercings in prison. During King’s processing, he said, the officer refused to photograph his genitalia, and so his modification was not entered into his record.

Later, according to the lawsuit King filed against the corrections officers at Huttonsville Correctional Center, a different inmate “reported seeing King and another inmate implanting marbles” into their genitalia. Because the pearling was not on his record — despite a medical assessment that the implants were not recent — the officers sentenced King to a 60-day segregation. Ultimately, a warden threatened King with segregation for the remainder of his sentence and with loss of eligibility for parole unless King consented to having the marbles surgically removed.

King did, to his later regret. He filed a lawsuit against the prison, which a federal judge dismissed in February 2015.

In a decision Tuesday, however, three judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit unanimously reversed the earlier ruling against King. Writing for the court, Judge Roger Gregory concluded that King’s complaint properly stated claims under the Fourth Amendment (regarding unlawful search and seizures), the Eighth Amendment (a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment) and the 14th Amendment (equal protection and due process) and should not have been dismissed by the federal trial court judge.

In his suit, King says the staff ridiculed him afterward, calling him “Marble Man” and inquiring “where his marbles are.” The removal surgery left him in pain and scarred, and King says the marks remind him of his deceased fiancée.

Gregory wrote that although inmates’ right to privacy is restricted in prison, the “scope of the intrusion” into King’s body “was certainly not commonplace,” putting him at risk for trauma and pain.

Bodily integrity is the most “deep-rooted” expectation of privacy, according to the opinion.  As Gregory wrote, “the nature of the surgery itself — surgery into King’s penis — counsels against reasonableness.”

The appeals court has sent the case back to the federal district court in Martinsburg, W.Va., to allow King to continue his lawsuit against some of the correctional facility’s officials.