Strip search: California sets a high price for visiting a loved one in prison

by Kim Rohrbach, Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity

In late September, the Bay View reported on draconian new regulations that the CDCr was then poised to implement, under the guise of an emergency. These regulations authorize the use of dogs and electronic drug detectors to indiscriminately search all persons entering institutional grounds for contraband. Both dogs and electronic detectors are notoriously unreliable, as both Mohamed Shehk and Peter Shey explained in the Bay View.

Sniffer dog searches for prison contraband. But dogs often indicate drugs that aren’t there. A 2006 report from New South Wales found that only .19 percent – less than 1 percent – of indications led to the successful prosecution of a drug supplier.
Sniffer dog searches for prison contraband. But dogs often indicate drugs that aren’t there. A 2006 report from New South Wales found that only .19 percent – less than 1 percent – of indications led to the successful prosecution of a drug supplier.

Although the “emergency” regulations nominally apply to all persons, they require that only visitors endure a strip search in the event of “positive canine alert.” Staff or contractors merely undergo a pat down.

To what extent these regulations have been implemented, and the timeline for implementation, are unclear. Shortly after the regulations were announced, members of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition learned of a so-called pilot program that the department was supposedly going to roll out, involving 12 people (whatever that means). One rights advocate recently reported to this writer that the electronic detectors would first be used at California State Prison-Solano, which already has them.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 17, the CDCr issued a Notice of Change to Regulations regarding electronic drug detection equipment. The department’s contemporaneously issued Initial Statement of Reasons states, “Recognizing the ongoing problem with drug use and trafficking within the institutions, CDCR must focus on undertaking a comprehensive approach to prevent the introduction of drugs and contraband into the institutions.” The department further notes in its Initial Statement of Reasons, “There were 4,000 documented incidents recorded in 2013 related to drugs in California prisons.”

Four thousand incidents is not such a high number, when put into perspective. On Dec. 25, 2013, the CDCr’s total in-custody population, according to its reported statistics, was 134,243. Thus, based on the latter figure, for each 100 people in custody, about 2.98 reported drug-related incidents were reported in 2013. (One wonders how these statistics compare with statistics out on the streets.)

This is by no means intended to minimize the problems and risks associated with the presence of illicit drugs within the prisons. However, the situation hardly justifies a policy allowing intrusive and warrantless, indiscriminate searches of those visiting their loved ones – particularly when staff and contractors, who typically go into work without so much as passing through a metal detector (or so this writer has observed), have the most unfettered access to those in custody and the greatest ability to introduce contraband unnoticed.

Although the “emergency” regulations nominally apply to all persons, they require that only visitors endure a strip search in the event of “positive canine alert.” Staff or contractors merely undergo a pat down.

Under the revised regulations, all persons “(s)hall be required to submit to contraband and/or metal detection device(s), and/or electronic drug detectors including, but not limited to, ION scanners and other available contraband and/or metal detecting device(s) technology, and a thorough search of all personal items, including inspection of a wheelchair, implant, prosthesis or assistive devices, prior to being allowed to visit with an inmate.”

Does this mean that visitors will be made to submit to x-ray scanners, for example? And, woe to the person who uses a wheelchair or is reliant on some other assistive device. S/he has already dealt with a heap of red-tape just to be allowed into a prison – if not the ongoing inconvenience of physical impairment – without additionally facing the prospect of a humiliating search.

Otherwise, it appears that the “emergency” regulations issued in September remain intact as initially published. That being said, the “emergency” regulations are no longer available on line – so one cannot easily ascertain what has been changed.

Mohamed Shehk previously reported, in his September article in the Bay View about the “emergency” regulations, “Anyone refusing to submit to the searches, even if they have no contraband, will have visiting privileges suspended for one year the first time and permanently the second time.” In the interim, one member of the statewide Inmate Family Council (IFC) has indicated that, according to recent information from the CDCr, the following procedures will apply:

  • ION scanners will be used on a “random” selection basis only as visitors prepare to go through the metal detector.
  • Visitors will enter as usual, and the ION scanner – when “randomly” employed – will be the first instrument employed by staff. Visitors will press a button upon entering. If a green light results, they will process without incident.
  • If a person tests positive the first time and a red light is triggered, s/he will be allowed the opportunity to go wash hands and come back for a second testing/scan.
  • If a person tests positive on the second time, s/he will be given the option of having a non-contact visit (behind glass), contingent upon the availability of a non-contact booth and having first submitted to a body search.
  • If a person refuses a body search, it will count as a refusal. That person’s visits will be suspended for a year if there are three refusals.
  • If a person submits to a body search and no contraband is found, s/he will nonetheless have to do her or his next two visits as non-contact visits. Moreover, it will be noted in that person’s visiting file that s/he has had up to two or three “positive readings.” After a third “positive reading,” the person’s visits will be suspended for a year.
  • It is unknown if persons with medical cannabis cards will receive any treatment different from other visitors.

At the time of publication, the Bay View is unable to verify the accuracy of this information, but it appears to be substantially correct.

Please note that the deadline for submitting public comments in opposition to the revised regulations regarding electronic drug detection equipment is Dec. 9, 2014. The CDCr specifies, “Any person may submit written comments about the proposed regulations to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Regulation and Policy Management Branch (RPMB), P.O. Box 942883, Sacramento, CA 94283-0001, by fax to (916) 324-6075, or by e-mail to RPMB@cdcr.ca.gov.” Those emailing should also email the Office of Administrative Law at staff@oal.ca.gov.

Kim Rohrbach volunteers with Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS), a coalition based in the Bay Area made up of grassroots organizations and community members committed to amplifying the voices of and supporting the prisoners at Pelican Bay and other California prisons as they strive to win their hunger strike demands. Email prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity@gmail.com and visit http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/.