The New York Department of Corrections (DOC) has a long history of illegal, invasive and humiliating strip searches. According to The New York Times, in a 10-month period spanning 1996 and 1997, more then 50,000 individuals – many of whom were either first time offenders, or arrested for “minor infractions like loitering, disorderly conduct or subway offenses” – were illegally strip searched by jail guards in Queens and Manhattan. A class action settlement to the tune of $50 million was awarded to those who had been subjected to the humiliation of disrobing, having their breasts or genitals inspected and/or being told to “squat and cough.”
Strip searching people who’ve been arrested is problem enough. But between 2010 and 2015, as The Intercept reports, nearly two decades after the class action lawsuit against the New York DOC, these invasive searches were still happening. This time the targets were innocent women who were simply trying to visit their incarcerated loved ones at the notorious police state prison complex located on Riker’s Island, New York.
In 2015, Jasmine Quattlebaum made the trek to Riker’s to visit her fiancé. She was asked to sign a consent form to agree to be patted down, which she did. But when the correction officer started to stick her fingers inside Quattlebaum’s crotch, she balked and attempted to get away. The officer said that Quattlebaum had “put her hands” on her and “should be arrested.” Following that encounter, Jasmine Quattlebaum was arrested and charged with “obstructing government administration and harassment.”
And Quattlebaum endured much more. She was banished from visiting her fiancé for six months, which meant her children couldn’t see their father. She also experienced fear and anxiety that she might even lose the children. But Quattlebaum decided to fight the charges by appealing to the Department of Corrections. They eventually granted her appeal and restored her visiting privileges.
Since 2010, 84 complaints have been registered with the Department of Corrections from visitors who have been made to “open their pants or disrobe completely.” Complaints include that correction officers have inserted their fingers or dirty gloves into body cavities. Tierra White, who was strip searched in 2014 and called New York’s 311 helpline to complain, said, “I don’t understand why the officer made me pull my pants down to see my sanitary napkin.” Tahgiana Cox, a visitor to the facility in 2015, felt forced to comply to an identical request.
Searching for contraband is the excuse used for strip searching visitors. The DOC says that out of 200,000 jail visits in 2016, there were 366 arrests when drugs, weapons or other banned items were discovered. But in the cases of 27 women who have joined in a lawsuit against the DOC for being “manually probed” during a strip search, no contraband was involved. Subsequent investigations revealed that the majority of contraband items come from Riker’s “guards and employees.”
In addition to feeling humiliation and fear from a sexual violation, there are other tolls that female visitors to the Riker’s prison complex have had to bear. LaToya Redcross was strip searched in 2014 and never returned to the complex. Her relationship with her incarcerated boyfriend ended. First time visitor, Dameka Dowdy, reported that when she came to see her brother, a correction officer “felt inside her bra … and put her hands in [her] underwear.” Dowdy’s first visit was her last. Lillian Rivera limits her visits due to the anxiety and hypertension she feels when she walks into the place. She claims, “I never know what they’re going to do to me and I have to live with that anxiety.”