Naked Shame

Years ago, courts ruled that routine strip searches in jails were unconstitutional. But for Fort Bend County women, if you got booked, they took a look.

Lupe Cantu lay in the back of her brother's Ford Mustang wanting to throw up. It was Good Friday, so instead of a beef taco, the 41-year-old Catholic woman ordered El Patio's spicy shrimp flameados. After a few bites, she had started vomiting in the restaurant. Cantu asked her brother to stop the car, but he told her to hang on, they were almost home. But a few minutes later he pulled over -- a Fort Bend County sheriff's deputy asked her brother for his driver's license, while Cantu puked on the side of the Southwest Freeway. Sweating in the closed car, Cantu stretched out in the backseat while the officer conducted field-sobriety tests on her brother. Cantu is an office manager for a cardiologist; she had never been stopped by police before, and she thought they would soon be on their way.

The officer opened the driver's-side door, told Cantu to get out, handcuffed her and arrested her for public intoxication. She had drunk only one margarita and says the officer didn't do any sobriety tests on her before putting her in the patrol car with her brother's girlfriend.

Cantu started sobbing. They were a mile from her house in Rosenberg's Greenwood subdivision. She told the officer if he took the next exit he could take her home. It was almost midnight, Friday the 13th, when they arrived at the Fort Bend County Jail. Cantu was ordered to remove her thin silver watch, three rings and six earrings before she and her brother's girlfriend were taken into a small freezing-cold room where two female officers ordered the women to strip.

A photographer and model illustrate the humiliation the jail detainees say they felt.
A photographer and model illustrate the humiliation the jail detainees say they felt.
A photographer and model illustrate the humiliation the jail detainees say they felt.
Deron Neblett
A photographer and model illustrate the humiliation the jail detainees say they felt.

What? Cantu asked. I'm not taking off my clothes.

Take them off, the officer said. Now.

Cantu's friend removed her shoes, jeans and shirt, stopping at her bra and panties. The guard told her to remove them too.

Afraid that they'd start beating her if she didn't, Cantu pulled off her black boots and slowly took off her jeans, yellow turtleneck sweater and underclothes. The guard ordered the women to raise their arms and then lift their breasts. "What in the hell could I hide under a size B-cup bra?" Cantu asks. Next the women were told to turn around, bend over and spread their butt cheeks while the guard shone a flashlight on their asses. The larger officer, Cantu insists, was leering at her like she was enjoying seeing her naked. The other guard, Cantu says, seemed to feel sorry for them: She offered to bring the women breakfast.

Cantu was fingerprinted, photographed and placed in a holding cell until almost 7 a.m., when her daughter came and paid the $200 bail to free her. A guard again watched Cantu undress and dress as she changed back into her street clothes.

Her brother's strip search, Cantu says, was worse. The guards peeled back the foreskin on his penis to make sure he was wasn't hiding anything there. "I never, ever, knew that they did that," Cantu says. "I thought you go to jail, you make a phone call, they put you in a cell. It's degrading."

Months later, Cantu's brother still avoids leaving the house. He goes to work, he comes home, and he sits in his bedroom. He worries what people he works with and people in the community would think of him if they knew what happened. He thinks the cops might have pulled him over because of his Mustang, so he wants to buy a less sporty car.

Cantu couldn't sleep after the strip search. Her doctor had to prescribe sleeping pills. By Tuesday, everyone in Rosenberg knew what had happened to her. She felt embarrassed and humiliated and didn't talk to her brother's girlfriend for weeks. Cantu is planning to file a federal civil rights suit for the violation of her constitutional rights against unreasonable searches; she has three daughters aged 17 to 22 and says she can't let this happen to them.

"It just shocks me that something as plainly written as the Fourth Amendment can be so wildly ignored by law enforcement," says her attorney John McDowell.

The county's lawyer, John Zavitsanos, admits that until April, guards strip-searched all women booked into the jail. Federal courts have said that officers must have a "reasonable suspicion" to search people arrested for misdemeanors.

Fort Bend County justifies its actions based on nothing more than the jail's floor plan. Arrestees are separated by sex, and the holding cells are situated so men and women cannot see or hear each other. Since the duty officer, seated in front of the men's cell, can't see into the women's cell, guards automatically searched every woman arrested regardless of her charge. They say they had to make sure all the women didn't have any weapons or contraband. The county justifies not hiring another guard to watch the women's cell because it's empty about half the time.

Zavitsanos says all Fort Bend County searches were done by an officer of the same sex in a windowless room with 12-inch-thick soundproof walls. (Cantu insists there was a small window in the door and that someone walked in while she was naked.) "The whole process takes less than five minutes. It's not filmed, it's not taped, no notes were taken," Zavitsanos says. "There were no cavity searches, there were no rubber gloves, there's no touching of any kind."

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