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.

On June 1 the county filed a motion to dismiss Andrae's case. "Strip searches have long been held to be constitutionally permissible," Zavitsanos wrote. He cited the 1976 Supreme Court ruling Bell v. Wolfish, which created a balancing test between the need for security and the inmate's constitutional right to privacy. Specifically, that case says it's okay to strip-search inmates after they have a contact visit with the outside world (e.g., a meeting with a lawyer or a loved one) to make sure they don't bring contraband into the facility.

But that's not what this case is about. No one is contesting searches after contact visits, and there is a stack of more relevant federal court rulings that say jails cannot strip-search someone who has committed only a misdemeanor. The county argues that a "strip search is a reasonable security measure that is necessary to discover and/or deter the smuggling of weapons, drugs and other contraband into an institutional facility."

Frisking people is not enough, Zavitsanos says, because male officers are afraid of sexual harassment suits. "It's just a fact that male officers are going to be very reluctant to do a thorough search of female arrestees because they're concerned that somebody is going to complain about them, that they're groping them or harassing them," Zavitsanos says. "What most officers will do is they'll just pat them around the pocket area or the waist to make sure the person doesn't have a gun in their pockets. But that doesn't mean a person is not wearing a gun in their bra, in their panties or on the thigh."

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.

The fact that the county admits doing the searches surprised McDowell and his associate. "We thought that their defense was gonna be that it never happened," says Irwin.

Zavitsanos says that since Andrae was arrested on a charge of shoplifting, it would make sense to strip-search her because shoplifters usually hide what they stole. (This same argument was made in a 1991 case where officers strip-searched people ac-cused of stealing a ring. The court said the search was not justifiable.) Zavitsanos plans to file a motion to dismiss McMullen's suit too.

In short, the county wants to squash these suits, while the prosecution is still recruiting clients.

Amy Lou Fulwiler, a 58-year-old state prison officer in Sugar Land's central unit, ate dinner at a friend's house on May 20, 2000; they worked word jumbles and then sat around drinking tea and talking until about 8:30 p.m. On her way home, Fulwiler stopped to get gasoline and a Lotto ticket.

Leaving the gas station, she turned right onto Missouri City's FM 2234. About two blocks later a souped-up white Chevy Camaro flew by, almost hitting her bumper before swerving into the left lane. "He was going like dynamite," she says. He shone a spotlight in her face, she says, then drove off at what seemed like 90 miles per hour.

At the next light, she pulled up behind him, flipped on the interior light in her '94 Mitsubishi Diamante and started writing down his license plate. The side of the car said "Constable," but the windows were tinted and she didn't believe a peace officer would be driving so erratically -- she thought the car might be stolen. She says he saw her writing then pulled up behind her and turned on his flashing lights.

That's when she started getting scared, she says. Very scared. So she decided to drive to the police station. She flipped on her turn signal and started to make a left into what she thought was the Missouri City Police Department (but it had recently relocated). Just then, she says, another constable came along beside her and ordered her to pull over, an officer got out of the Camaro behind her with his gun pointed at her and told her to get out of the car. "He looked like a juiced-up chicken the way he was jumping around," she says. "I knew they would break my bones, I knew they would knock my teeth out -- this man was crazy."

When she stepped out, she was immediately handcuffed and thrown into the back of the patrol car where she sat for about an hour while they searched her car and ran a background check.

They charged her with evading arrest; at the Fort Bend County Jail a big burly woman ordered Fulwiler to take off her shorts, T-shirt, bra and panties and did a visual cavity search. The guard told her to spread her butt cheeks, bend over and cough. "It was just devastating," Fulwiler says. "Devastating. It was days, months -- I'm not even sure I'm over it yet."

Many people who have been strip-searched say it has the same effect as being raped. Someone forced them to take their clothes off and expose themselves. They feel embarrassed, violated, vulnerable, humiliated and shamed. Some get headaches and can't stop reliving the experience in their heads. They have nightmares or their lives become a nightmare because most people don't like to get naked (involuntarily) in front of strangers (especially strangers in police uniforms). Even at the doctor's office patients are never fully naked.

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