Renee Espinoza believed the California correctional officer guard’s initial strip search of her would be her last. It occurred when she met her spouse, who was held there at Centinela State Prison.
A few months later, it occurred once more. And once more.
“It was the same process each time. I sign a paper saying it’s ok to search me; they escort me to the same locker room,” Renee said.
She completed Form 888, which is required of every visitor who agrees to an unclothed search before each examination. She remembered that the initial search seemed routine and procedural. She became aware of the female police’ use of mirrors and flashlights during the second search.
The jail officer became more forceful during the third search. She prompted me to spread out my genitalia. I exclaim, “There’s nothing in there!” How much more room do I need to make available? How much more must I bend down for you? What more do you require of me?
Last week, Espinoza shared her experience with other state prisoner families attempting to understand a proposed modification to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation search policy.
Aiming to increase transparency and consistency regarding the rights of individuals being searched, the department, which is under pressure to stop the flow of drugs and cell phones into jails, aims to implement procedural modifications that will, according to authorities, be small.
“The only change these regulations implement is in regard to proposed changes to (the state prison system’s) Form 888, which works to include clarity and consistency with existing language describing the search process and the rights of those being searched. The search process itself will remain unchanged,” wrote Alia Cruz, a spokesperson for the corrections agency, in an email.
However, one of the suggested amendments to the policy has language that implies correctional personnel may have additional latitude to conduct a strip search. By making that modification, the standard for an officer to ask for a search would be lowered from “probable cause” to “reasonable suspicion.”
Advocates are concerned that it might result in unduly intrusive encounters between family members of prisoners and correctional staff.
“People who run the visits already have a lot of discretion,” said Sharon Dolovich, a law professor and the director of UCLA’s Prison Law and Policy Program. The only thing this accomplishes is broaden the range of discretion, making it simpler to explain… They may already be strip-searching whomever they choose, in my opinion.
Prior to a scheduled public comment hearing on the rule, attorney Eric Sapp of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, an Oakland-based organization, met with families last week. He referred to the proposed modification as illegal and in violation of other rules, and he referred to the fact that the department doesn’t expressly state whether touching is permitted during unclothed searches as “concerning.”
“We do think it’s unreasonable that they want to change and harmonize those regulations by lowering ‘probable cause’ to reasonable suspicion’ rather than doing the exact opposite,” he added, arguing that the standard should stay at probable cause.
The proposed rule, according to Cruz, a department official, is not meant to alter the search threshold. According to her, the standards for cavity and strip searches will continue to be “unchanged,” and they would only be used as a last resort.
“Unclothed searches are completely voluntary unless a search warrant is presented. Unclothed searches are used very sparingly, and only when all other contraband interdiction efforts have been exhausted,” said Cruz. “Contraband interdiction efforts to be used before an unclothed search is proposed includes walk-through metal detectors and hand-held metal detectors.”
There are repercussions for visitors to prison who refuse a search. They would miss the opportunity to visit their loved ones who are behind bars, which could sometimes result in a wasted trip to the facility that takes several hours.
The tweet below confirms the news:
Strip searches for prison visitors are usually "completely voluntary." But you get turned away if you say no. In some cases, this means a waste of an hours-long drive to visit a loved one. https://t.co/z2pUioHLqs
— CalMatters (@CalMatters) August 8, 2023
Why is This Discussion About Jail Search Policies Now?
Six months after an Office of Inspector General audit highlighted the flow of illegal substances into jails, including during the pandemic when visitor restrictions were in place, California’s corrections administration enacted the new regulation.
According to the report, the Department of Corrections had ineffective measures in place to prohibit the sale of contraband, which eventually “allowed” the issue to persist. The inspector general encouraged the government to increase staff searches more regularly and increase the employment of canines trained to sniff out drugs to keep drugs out of prisons.
Between March 2019 and February 2020, there were 1,274 overdoses in California’s state prisons. According to California Correctional Health Care Services, overdoses decreased to 796 in the subsequent 12 months when pandemic limitations were enacted.
Although there were fewer overdoses, the examples showed that narcotics continued to enter jails even when family were unable to visit. Staff, independent contractors, official visitors, and mail were some of the channels.
64 visitors were detained between 2021 and 2022 in all state prisons for attempting to bring in contraband. According to the department’s Office of Research, 46 non-visitors and six jail inmates were also detained in the same year. There were fewer visitors detained in 2019 compared to 286 in 2018 and 186 in 2017.
More bizarre drug delivery techniques have emerged. According to the Los Angeles Times, two men have just been charged with using drones to drop drugs, vape pens, MP3 players, and phones into the yards of seven jail facilities.
According to Shaun Spillane, a representative for the Inspector General’s office, the decision to revise policies has merit when questioned about the planned modifications to search procedures.
“Although drugs still made it into prisons while visitation was suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that the department have an effective search process for people who visit prisons,” Spillane said.
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Jail Visits in California Are a Civil Right
In the midst of the Newsom administration’s initiative to make jails more welcoming to families, a request to amend search policies has been made. Last month, he passed legislation allowing offenders to be held in facilities closer to their little children’s residence.
To make family visits more convenient, the Newsom administration expanded visitation hours at all institutions by one day each week in 2021.
Families, however, assert that visitors will feel less likely to visit if frightening visiting regulations are in place. Others claim that, in protest, they would decline a search even if it meant forfeiting their vacation.
“Close connections to loved ones on the outside is the single biggest predictor of success for re-entry, so why wouldn’t the CDCR try to enhance the experience and enhance the ability for people to visit rather than increasingly burden it?” Dolovich, the professor from UCLA, said.
After COVID-19, according to Angel Rice, a prisoner’s wife and advocate with Empowering Women Impacted by Incarceration, the department began allowing families more freedom over the holidays.
Making Christmas ornaments, picture frames, and gingerbread houses is now acceptable for kids and mothers.
“That is a small part of them positively doing something to make us feel like it’s family,” Rice said. “This is the Department of Rehabilitation. And these little events matter. They make a difference as far as preparing them to come home.”
This year, the Legislature also advanced a couple of laws to facilitate more accessible access to family members of detainees.
One would restrict the Department of Corrections ability to refuse a person from visiting and would be sponsored by Los Angeles Assemblymember Miguel Santiago. Because he believed the measure could result in expensive litigation from those who were denied visitation due to what may have been legitimate security concerns, Newsom vetoed a version of this bill (PDF) in 2021.
The department plans to host a public hearing on the new search regulations on Wednesday. Advocates have previously suggested substitutes for the visitor policy, such as raising the bar for an officer to ask for a strip search or employing non-intrusive technologies.
Days before the public comment period closes, Sapp wrote to the agency, “These proposed changes, in particular, are unnecessary and dangerous, creating grave potential for abuse and causing undue burdens on visitors.” Before any regulations in this area are established, “we urge that significant changes be made.”
If it is granted, the department will submit a request for good reason, which would immediately implement the policy.
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