To be in prison is to lose most of the basic prerogatives of a free adult — choosing where to go, what to eat, when to go to bed, whom to associate with. It also means a huge loss of privacy. In 2011, women held at Illinois' downstate Lincoln Correctional Center found out just how extensive that exposure can be.
Early one day, a tactical unit handcuffed 200 inmates and herded them into a gym. Groups were moved to rooms where they were ordered to take off their clothes, remove any tampons or sanitary pads, bend over and spread their vaginal and anal cavities. All this was visible not only to the attending guards but to other prison staffers.
The prisoners sued, claiming the inspection violated their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches. But last Tuesday, a panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled against them. By a 2-1 vote, the court said that under existing U.S. Supreme Court precedents, prisoners have few privacy rights, and none that were violated by the Lincoln guards.
There are pressing if controversial reasons for such intrusive inspections. Operating a penitentiary is a hugely difficult job. Even dissenting Judge John Z. Lee acknowledged, "We always must be mindful that prison administrators should be accorded 'wide-ranging deference in the adoption and execution of policies and practices that in their judgment are needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security.' "
Judge Frank Easterbrook noted that in prisons, "Strip searches often are reasonable and thus permissible." The Supreme Court has allowed body cavity searches to combat contraband.
What complicates the issue is that the Lincoln undertaking was a formal training exercise, not a response to a threat. Teaching cadet guards how to conduct cavity searches may seem like an inadequate justification for this imposition on female inmates — even if it gives trainees direct, realistic exposure to what their jobs will involve.
This appellate ruling essentially echoed the Supreme Court's findings that, as a rule, correctional officials should have considerable latitude in measures they think necessary to control a population of criminals, some of them violent. The high court said in 1984, "We are satisfied that society would insist that the prisoner's expectation of privacy always yield to what must be considered the paramount interest in institutional security."
But this incident raises unresolved questions. Was the training exercise essential in educating cadets? "The training was not strictly necessary," argued Judge Lee, "as most cadets graduated without it."
If the strip-searches and cavity inspections were justified, why were they done in sight of people not involved in the exercise? As a matter of ordinary decency, the intrusion on physical privacy should be limited to what is required for a valid purpose.
The appellate court declined to overrule the prison administrators, though, in part because the Supreme Court has given no sign that it would expand its fixed view of the severely limited privacy rights of inmates. Maybe a training exercise of this sort goes too far. But given the high court's prior rulings, that is ultimately a question only the nine justices in Washington, D.C., can — and perhaps will — now resolve.