By Tori Marlan

Civil rights attorney Tom Morrissey was vacationing in Michigan on August 21–the day before his birthday, which also happens to be his son’s birthday–when one of his paralegals called with news that threw a wrench into his plans for a celebration. A decision had been handed down in the federal lawsuit he’d filed nearly two years ago on behalf of numerous former female inmates at the Cook County Jail. The judge, David Coar, agreed with Morrissey and attorney Robert Farley that the strip-search policy at the jail violated the women’s 4th and 14th Amendment rights, which protect against invasions of privacy and discrimination based on sex. (The lawsuit, Kenya Gary v. Michael Sheahan, was the subject of a Reader cover story last March.)

The long-awaited decision came as a relief to Morrissey, though it was no surprise. At a March 1997 hearing he and Farley had presented evidence that female inmates returning from court were routinely strip-searched while men weren’t–despite a written jail policy ordering all “court returns” to undergo such searches. The lawyers had also argued that there would be no real security threat if women whose cases had been discharged weren’t strip-searched–as long as they didn’t return to the jail’s living quarters, where they would have contact with other inmates.

After that hearing Judge Coar ordered Sheriff Sheahan to make some changes at the jail, and he indicated that the women would prevail in his final ruling. It took seven months and a strict admonishment from the judge before the sheriff implemented the changes, but last October corrections officers began notifying female inmates that they had a right to forgo the strip search prior to their release if they chose to remain in a holding cell while their papers were processed.

Morrissey cut his vacation short and rushed back to Chicago to notify the women he represented and to prepare himself for the “frivolous filings” he expected from the sheriff’s lawyers. It had been a bitter fight. Morrissey and Farley had tried twice unsuccessfully to have Sheahan held in contempt of court for disobeying the judge’s orders, and Sheahan’s public relations team had tried to deflect press attention by saying Morrissey was wasting taxpayers’ money. According to Sheahan’s spokesman Bill Cunningham, the sheriff continues to deny that the jail’s strip-search policy violated anyone’s civil rights and is considering appealing the judge’s decision.

The case has entered the damages phase, and about 12,000 women who were illegally strip-searched between November 1994 and October 1997 are eligible for financial compensation if they can prove that the infringement on their rights caused them injury. Morrissey has asked for $50,000 for each woman.

Still at issue is a motion by Sheahan’s defense team asking the judge to “decertify the class,” which would prevent the women from pursuing damages as a group. Part of the thinking behind the motion, according to John Kennedy, one of the sheriff’s attorneys, is that the class is too large and the women’s experiences too diverse to determine the actual damages sustained by each member. Breaking up the class, he adds, wouldn’t stop the women from being compensated individually, as long as they could prove that they were injured, though the amount would be based on the nature of each woman’s personal injuries. Morrissey and Farley say something similar can be accomplished in a class-action suit if the women are given a range of awards.

Kennedy thinks that if the judge permits the women to go forward as a class he should at least limit the amount of damages they receive. The motion asks for a court order stating that the women “may not collect any compensatory damages or may collect only nominal damages of $1.00 each, due to lack of proof of class injury.”

Morrissey says there’s plenty of proof that the strip searches caused the women harm. Since the defense filed its motion, his expert witness, psychologist Joan Leska, has submitted a report on the women’s injuries based on in-depth interviews with several women, psychological testing, and questionnaires filled out by a total of 388 women.

The report is full of disturbing details about the strip searches. By and large, the women described similar treatment, saying the guards verbally harassed, insulted, and degraded them, made sexual comments about their bodies, and touched them aggressively. Women who were having their periods reported having to pull out their tampons in front of others and bleeding all over the floor. Some women even said that dogs handled by male guards searched them for drugs while they were naked.

The filthy condition of the bull pens often added to the unpleasantness of the experience. A corrections officer Morrissey and Farley deposed in April even admitted that the stench in there was sometimes so bad she “almost vomited.”

Leska found that 92 percent of one sample of 80 women had experienced moderate to severe post-trauma-like symptoms–such as panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive memories–immediately after or within six months of their strip search.

Overall, she concluded, the strip search “appears to have been traumatic and significantly distressing for almost all of the women.” Some of the women even likened the experience to rape. “Although rape victims can experience a range of symptoms, a few have been studied consistently,” Leska wrote. “These are fear and anxiety, depression, social maladjustment, and sexual dysfunction. These symptoms were consistently reported by the women who had been strip-searched.”

The first few trials for compensatory damages are set for early November. The outcomes could help establish a range for awards or encourage the parties to settle.

Meanwhile the fight remains personal. “It’s no secret that the plaintiff’s counsel is seeking a substantial award for himself, up to 40 percent,” Kennedy insists. “What drives this case is his desire to generate substantial fees.”

Morrissey of course says the lawsuit was motivated not by greed but by the desire to end illegal strip searches at the jail and to help his clients obtain compensation for what they’d been through. “Will it cost the county millions of dollars?” he says unabashedly. “Yes, it could. But that’s what happens when government officials do things that are wrong. It behooves the county to have prudent policy makers. Public officials should be responsible and act constitutionally. We ought to feel confident that the jail keepers aren’t abusing people’s rights. Many of these women were found innocent. They’re told they can go free–and then the sheriff’s office puts them through this horrendous trauma.”

A woman named Lisa who’s part of the suit says that she’s been depressed ever since she was strip-searched back in May 1997. “I think about it all the time. It makes me think of what happened to me when I was little,” she says, referring to having been sexually molested. She also says that the experience has caused her to get migraine headaches and to have difficulty being intimate with her husband. “We ain’t like we was. At times I don’t want him to touch me.”

Lisa says she can’t fully celebrate the outcome of the lawsuit. “I’m happy, but I’m not happy–because it shouldn’t have happened.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Robert Farley, tom Morrissey photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.