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Stop Cross-Gender Pat Searches

Letter to the Director of the California Department of Corrections

Prohibiting routine cross-gender pat searches is necessary to protect the privacy of incarcerated women as well as their individual dignity and bodily integrity. Permitting male correctional employees to pat down women contributes to the problem of sexual degradation of women in prison and heightens the risk of staff sexual abuse.

December 9, 2004

Ms. Jeanne Woodford, Director
California Department of Corrections
1515 S Street
Sacramento, CA 94283

Dear Ms. Woodford:

We were surprised to learn recently that cross-gender pat searches are still permitted in California’s prisons for women. We urge you to put an immediate end to such searches. Prohibiting routine cross-gender pat searches is necessary to protect the privacy of incarcerated women as well as their individual dignity and bodily integrity.

As a matter of policy, Human Rights Watch supports U.S. anti-discrimination laws and has no objection per se to male officers guarding female prisoners. And certainly, we do not believe that all male officers abuse female prisoners. But permitting male correctional employees to pat down women contributes to the problem of sexual degradation of women in prison and heightens the risk of staff sexual abuse. Correctional officers have used cross-gender pat frisks to grope women’s breasts, buttocks, and vaginal areas. Given the extraordinarily high percentage of women prisoners who have been sexually or physically abused prior to entering prison, cross-gender pat searches can also contribute to unresolved trauma from such prior abuse.

Cross-gender pat searches violate the human dignity and privacy rights of women prisoners as recognized under international human rights treaties to which the United States is a party. For example, Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) affirms the right to privacy. According to the Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, compliance with Article 17 requires effective measures to ensure body searches are “carried out in a manner consistent with the dignity of the person being searched. Persons being subjected to body searches by States officials…should only be examined by persons of the same sex.”

We hope you will be able to change quickly department and facility-level policies regarding cross-gender pat frisks. In the meantime, in case you are not familiar with them, we are sending you copies of recent Human Rights Watch reports on prison conditions, including one on the sexual abuse of women prisoners.

Sincerely,

Jamie Fellner, Esq.
Director, U.S. Program
Human Rights Watch

Tiffany Davenport
Associate Director, Southern California
Human Rights Watch

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