By Tori Marlan

Tonya Townsend tells a disturbing story about what happened to her at Cook County Jail. After she was arrested on drug charges in February, she says, she was escorted to a gymnasium with nearly 40 other women and ordered to strip. Naked, with menstrual blood dribbling down her legs, she performed a series of humiliating tasks. Following commands given by corrections officers, the women opened their mouths, lifted their breasts, and ran their hands through their hair. Then, Townsend says, they had to spread their buttocks and bend and squat while coughing. Some of the women in the group apparently didn’t bend and squat to a guard’s satisfaction, and the group had to repeat the process over and over–nine times, by Townsend’s count. Townsend says two others bled onto the floor as well, and that two women in the group were vomiting. She also says the officers in charge taunted the inmates, calling them “whores and bitches.”

Undergoing a group strip search is notable not because it’s unusual but because it’s routine. Women awaiting trial in Cook County are strip-searched upon entry to the jail and again after any court appearances, before they can rejoin the jail population. They are also subject to strip searches in their housing divisions. And unlike inmates in other cities–even New York, which has a larger system–women in Chicago get strip-searched publicly, in groups.

Early this month, attorneys for Townsend and two other women who were detained at the jail brought a federal class-action suit against Sheriff Michael Sheahan. Their attorneys, Thomas Morrissey and Robert Farley, contend that strip searches conducted in this manner and under these conditions are unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. The suit also raises broader concerns about human rights. Says Morrissey, it’s essentially about “treating people with respect and dignity, whether they’re in custody or otherwise.”

This isn’t the first time Morrissey and Farley have tangled with the sheriff over his strip-search policy. In 1996 they filed a class-action lawsuit that exposed a practice at the jail whereby women–but not men–were routinely strip-searched after their release had been ordered. A federal judge found this practice unconstitutional and ordered Sheriff Sheahan to end the discriminatory treatment. The ruling was a triumph for female detainees, who can now opt out of a strip search unless they need to go back into the jail to collect their belongings. But according to Morrissey and Farley, Gary v. Sheahan only scratched the surface of what’s wrong with Cook County’s strip searches.

In the new lawsuit, Wilkes v. Sheahan, they argue that the searches are conducted in an abusive fashion, that they are highly intrusive, and that they endanger the health of the women being searched. In short, says Morrissey, these searches “shouldn’t be happening in a civilized society.”

The Wilkes complaint alleges that female inmates are herded in groups of 15 to 40 into squalid bullpens or the gym to be strip-searched. The areas contain “wretched and putrid” odors. The toilets in the bullpens frequently overflow, and “there is urine, human excrement, blood, food and paper on the floors.”

Morrissey and Farley allege in the complaint that overweight women are singled out and told to lift the folds of their stomachs. They say that during searches officers make derogatory remarks about the inmates, that it is “not uncommon” for male officers to enter the search areas, and that sometimes guard dogs “sniff and search female inmates for contraband.” Furthermore, no special provisions are made for women who have their periods. The complaint says menstrual blood on the floor puts inmates at risk of contracting communicable diseases.

Townsend and the other plaintiffs had court dates scheduled for this month, which meant they were due to be strip-searched, so on Tuesday, March 13, Morrissey and Farley appeared before District Court judge John Darrah asking for an emergency temporary restraining order against the sheriff to prevent the impending group searches.

Morrissey and Farley are not challenging the sheriff’s right–or duty–to conduct strip searches, which they acknowledge are necessary for safety and security. Nor are they seeking damages for their clients. “We’re making a pretty modest request,” says Morrissey, “and that’s to do the strip searches in private.”

But John Maul, assistant executive director of the jail, says individual strip searches are impractical. Outside Darrah’s courtroom, Maul estimated that 150 women need to be strip-searched every day, and that private searches would take between five and ten minutes. By his calculation, that’s 25 hours of strip-searching a day: “We’d be doing it on Saturday and Sunday, trying to catch up for the week.”

In any case, the sheriff isn’t about to fix a procedure that, in his view, isn’t broken. “We believe the allegations in this lawsuit are baseless,” says Sally Daly, a spokesperson for Sheahan. “And we do not believe that they are true or that they reflect the conditions or the policies at the Cook County Jail.”

If the sheriff intends to refute the allegations, however, he may have an uphill battle. In addition to the testimony of the three named plaintiffs in the Wilkes case, who all describe similar strip-search experiences, Morrissey says he has about 800 questionnaires from his Gary clients offering consistent descriptions of the nature and conditions of the strip searches. And in depositions taken in the Gary case, a few of the sheriff’s own corrections officers lend support to some of the allegations. The officers admit to having seen men in the search areas and menstrual blood on the floors, as well as to having noticed nauseating odors permeating the search areas. The stench is “really awful” at times, one officer said. “So bad I have almost vomited.”

Daly says Morrissey and Farley have taken “bits and pieces” of the officers depositions out of context to make “inflammatory accusations.”

The state’s attorney’s office has assigned five lawyers to defend Sheahan, and they have declined to comment publicly on the case. It appears from their motion to dismiss the Wilkes complaint that they consider the allegations inconsequential. They state in the motion that “the foul odors of which the plaintiffs complain,” “the use of derogatory language which plaintiffs allege,” and “embarrassment about being visually strip-searched…or bleeding,” among other allegations in the complaint, do not represent constitutional violations.

Constitutional questions aside, if the sheriff discovered that the allegations about the strip searches were true, how might he respond? Would he volunteer to make any changes at the jail? “We wouldn’t even speculate on that,” Daly says.

Sheahan’s attorneys conclude their motion to dismiss the Wilkes suit by citing the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Harris v. Fleming, which, they point out, recognized that “inmates cannot expect the amenities, conveniences and services of a good hotel.”

But Morrissey and Farley’s clients are not asking for facials or caviar. They’re seeking relief from what they consider degrading treatment and filthy conditions. And on March 14, Judge John Darrah agreed that they seemed to need it. He granted the temporary restraining order against the sheriff, prohibiting him and his employees from conducting “intrusive strip searches” of the Wilkes plaintiffs in public. The judge also agreed to hold a hearing on April 2 to listen to testimony on whether he should extend the ruling to cover all women at the jail while the case is being litigated.

To issue such a ruling–a preliminary injunction–the judge would need to be persuaded that the plaintiffs’ claims have merit, and that the harm done by these particular kinds of searches outweighs the need for them. Morrissey and Farley expect the sheriff to argue that the size of the jail’s population makes private strip searches infeasible. But they will present the testimony of Sheila Vaughan, a bureau chief for the New York City Department of Corrections. Vaughan has signed an affidavit saying that her officers conduct strip searches in small rooms or cubicles, one inmate at a time, and that each search takes only three to five minutes. Morrissey and Farley will also present Ram Yogev, the director of pediatric/maternal HIV infections at Children’s Memorial Hospital. Yogev has signed an affidavit stating his medical opinion that “the strip-searching of women inmates at the Cook County Jail who are on their menstrual period and where their blood runs onto the floor poses a health risk to the women and any other person who may come into contact with that blood.”

The plaintiffs came to court prepared to testify on March 14. Morrissey says on the way back into the jail–after the judge had issued the temporary restraining order–they were again strip-searched together, as if nothing had changed. The following day, the drug case against Townsend was dismissed, and she was released from custody. Without having been convicted of a crime, she’d been publicly strip-searched at least three times.

In the Gary case, it took the sheriff seven months and the threat of being found in contempt of court before he finally complied with a preliminary injunction to stop routinely strip-searching women who had been released. The sheriff lost the case and promptly filed an appeal, which is pending. (I wrote about the case for the Reader in 1998. A few months later, when I tried to get permission to enter the jail for another story, I was turned down. The Reader is suing the sheriff for the access that I requested.)

Now Sheriff Sheahan is gearing up for another long legal battle about strip searches. He may lose this one too. In court last week, Judge Darrah said there was “some likelihood” the plaintiffs would succeed. “I’ll bet on it,” says Ed Urban, deputy warden of the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh. His institution would conduct group strip searches only in the case of a “major disaster or emergency,” he says. “Things can be done to protect a person’s privacy, even if it’s hanging up a sheet. Cook County–I think they’re in trouble.”

But the sheriff’s not giving up. “Once we have the appropriate and full opportunity to tell our side of the story in court,” says Daly, “we are confident that we will prevail.” Prevailing, for the sheriff, would mean preserving a practice that female inmates in the Gary case compared to rape, that a doctor says jeopardizes people’s health, that his own officers have described certain aspects of as nauseating, and for which there appears to be an efficient and effective alternative model. If there’s a good reason for clinging so fiercely to the status quo, Sheriff Sheahan isn’t revealing it to his constituents. Through his press office, he refuses all requests for interviews regarding the case.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.