Category Archives: Prisons

Jail Strip Searches

In Florence v. County of Burlington (2012) the US Supreme Court ruled (by a vote of 5-4) that jailers have a general right to strip search all arrestees, even those arrested for minor offenses such as vehicle code violations. Strip searches are valid under the Fourth Amendment even if jailers have no reason to believe that an arrestee has a weapon or illegal contraband like drugs secreted somewhere in a body cavity.

While the ruling was a close one, the decision probably reflects as much as anything else the majority’s unwillingness to second guess jailers’ decisions as to when a strip search may be warranted. For one thing, jail personnel might not even know why a person has been brought to jail. Thus, a decision to strip search may be more a product of conditions in the jail than a suspect’s dangerousness.

Moreover, Justice Kennedy’s opinion noted that “about 13 million people are admitted to jails each year,” making it sound like arrestees have gotten into college. Given the goings and comings of the jail population, probably only a small percentage will be strip searched anyway.

Finally, the opinion leaves plenty of room for arrestees to challenge the legality of individual searches. For example, a strip search may be invalid because of the particularly humiliating or dangerous manner in which it was conducted.

Sex-Change Surgery for Transgender Inmates?

Lyralisa Sevens is a California transgender prison inmate.  Stevens was born a male but identifies as female. California provides Stevens with hormone replacement therapy, but Stevens is housed with male prisoners because Stevens’ male genitalia is intact.  Stevens has sued the state, asking a court to order the state to pay for a sex-change surgery that will result in Stevens’ transfer to a female prison.

Stevens claims that a male prison is a dangerous place for an inmate with feminine deportment and breasts. That’s probably true.  But judges cannot justify ordering a cash-strapped state to pay many thousands of dollars for a convicted murder’s non-emergency surgery.

The state should take reasonable steps to keep Stevens safe from other prisoners. But at a time when California has had to cut back severely on support for education and social services, an order that Stevens (and undoubtedly hundreds of other prison inmates) is entitled to a sex-change operation would be unconscionable.

Rehabilitive Sentencing

The US Supreme Court will shortly decide whether a federal judge can lengthen a prison sentence for the purpose of giving a prisoner time to complete a prison drug rehabilitation program.  The case involves Alejandra Tapia, who was convicted of crimes involving drugs and alien smuggling.  The judge gave Tapia a longer-than-usual sentence (though still within statuory limits) in the hope that she would enroll in a prison drug rehabilitation program.  Tapia is challenging the sentence, claiming that the relevant statute, 18 USC Sec. 3582, forbids judges from considering rehabilitative programs when deciding on the length of prison sentences.

Tapia argues that Congress did not want to use prison sentences to coerce prisoners to participate in rehabilitation programs.  And in fact Tapia refused to partiicpate in a rehabilitation program.  That’s sad but hardly surprising: the same thinking that led her into prison in the first place seemingly continues to control her actions.

If the Court upholds Tapia’s challenge, perhaps the only effect will be to make sentencing judges more circumspect.  Tapia’s sentencing judge indicated that he was lengthening her sentence to give her a chance to enroll in a rehabilitation program.  Had the judge said, “I’m giving you the maximum sentence in order to protect society,” that sentence would not violate Sec. 3582.

At the end of the day, rehabilitation programs probably work best when people are willing and committed to changing their lives.  Hopefully, inmates like Alejandra Tapia will come to view a prison term as an opportunity to enroll in a rehabilitation program or participate in a program like AA or CGA (Criminals and Gang Members Anonymous).  If not, prisons will continue to be revolving doors for many people.