Strip-searches will keep helpful visitors, not illegal drugs, out of prison

Keeping drugs out of state prisons is an understandable goal, but it doesn't justify strip-searching visitors

There are only a few proven ways to lower the recidivism rate for prison parolees. Among these is maintaining their family ties during incarceration. And the best way to accomplish that is through regular “contact” visits, in which prisoners and their families are allowed a quick hug and can sit together in the visitors area.

California's Department of Corrections has paid lip service to the value of visiting for all of my 35 years in prison, even as an ever-growing set of restrictions and barriers was erected, making the process more complicated and much less family-friendly.

The latest and worst of these regulations is aimed at stopping the flow of illegal drugs into prisons. That may be an understandable goal, but the ends don't justify the means. The means in this case include the possibility that visitors will be strip-searched. Instead of keeping out drugs, it will mostly serve to keep out visitors.

The Corrections Department has begun the multimillion-dollar implementation of ion scanners in its prisons. The scanners measure contraband residue — the presence of drugs — in the parts-per-billion range. However, they've also been shown to deliver false positives.

Visitors, staff, volunteers, contractors — everyone entering a prison — will be subject to random selection. Those who are chosen have their hands swabbed and the swab checked by scanner. If the machine registers a positive finding, the subject is allowed to wash his or her hands before a second scan.

If there is a second positive result, the subject must submit to a clothed, pat-down, airport-style search to gain entry to the prison. That is, unless the subject happens to be a visitor. The regulations single out visitors and visitors only — not guards or other staff, not volunteers, not contractors — for a strip-search.

Visitors can refuse. In that case, they will be denied a contact visit but allowed a noncontact visit. Or they can simply turn around and go home.

Remember that many visitors travel long distances to see their loved ones during limited visiting times. They must follow a wide range of rules and they may have to wait hours to gain entry at each visit. And now, the possibility of a strip-search is part of the procedure as well.

This is what usually constitutes a strip-search: You remove all your clothes, including underwear. Each item of clothing is examined. Standing naked in front of an examiner, you open your mouth and run your fingers around your gums before sticking out your tongue. You lift your arms over your head, and extend your fingers for inspections. One foot and then the other must be lifted up for examination.

Men must lift their genitals with one hand and rake the fingers of their other hand through their pubic hair before turning around, bending at the waist, spreading their butt cheeks, and coughing. Women squat over a mirror placed on the ground between their feet to expose their genitals to examination.

As a prisoner, I've been searched like this again and again, perhaps a thousand times. I have firsthand knowledge of why strip-searches are condemned as profound intrusions of privacy. Many people, from many different cultures, find the very idea of exposing themselves to a stranger unacceptable. The fact that the vast majority of visitors are, in fact, among the most marginalized in our society — poor women of color — should raise additional serious questions about strip-searches from any objective observer.

The way to end drug use anywhere, prisons included, is with treatment and counseling, education and therapy to end the cycle of abuse. Unfortunately, California's prison system remains locked in the failed delusions of the “get tough” era, and now it is wasting millions of precious tax dollars on ion scanners — each unit reportedly costs $30,000. It is trampling on the weak in what will probably be another futile attempt to push drugs out of prisons, all the while with admittedly inadequate treatment programs in place.

How could any rational human being enact and then defend these policies? Rules that require visitors singled out by the scanners — and only visitors — to squat naked over a mirror or bend over and cough before they can give a prisoner a hug need to be repealed.

Kenneth E. Hartman is serving a life sentence for murder. He is the author of "Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars."

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