Female inmates accuse Wayne County of unconstitutional strip searches

Room with a view

After violating terms of her parole for a first-degree retail fraud charge, Janine Weathington entered Division 1 of Wayne County Jail in downtown Detroit on Nov. 22, 2011. It wasn't an unusual circumstance for the then-50-year-old Detroiter; Weathington had previously been incarcerated several times on similar charges.

But something about this day was more than a footnote in her trips through the justice system. Upon arrival, female officers conducted a strip search of her, along with a group of several other incoming inmates.

"We were all looking at each other naked," Weathington says. "And we were in an area where male trustees could go by and see us, and I just didn't feel comfortable with it. I didn't want to look at anybody else in the nude, and I'm sure they didn't want to look at me in the nude. And it was just embarrassing."

Where Weathington stood naked there was a small bench on one wall and a one-way glass window, an unnerving implication that there could be people watching. And, according to Weathington, there were: While there weren't any male officers in that room, she could hear male voices laughing on the other side of the window.

"Well, the male officers, they are ... usually visiting or under the assumption that they're having lunch with, their co-workers, and they are behind the glass and you can hear them laughing, but you're still expected to do your strip search in the small room with just a bench," Weathington says.

Weathington's words come from testimony in a Dec. 3, 2014, hearing on a lawsuit she filed more than two years ago. Now 54, Weathington hasn't contested the legality of the strip searches themselves — it's the manner in which she and her attorneys say Wayne County has systematically conducted them that is the problem: In groups of 30 to 50 at a time, in the presence of male officers, and under circumstances that fly in the face of her constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.

Federal civil rights complaints filed by inmates often lack merit, says Michael Dezsi, one of Weathington's attorneys, but that hasn't been the case with his client's suit.

"When I first got involved in this, I was kind of like, 'What exactly is the crux of this, of what's happening here?'" Dezsi says. "And, you know, the more I started peeling into it, I started realizing that these women have a bona fide, legitimate concern."

It's here the viewpoint of the county's sheriff's office diverges. This is how the office describes the scenario at the registry: After being admitted, female inmates are placed in a room to change into their jail uniforms. The registry does indeed have a "viewing room" with a window that allows officers to "oversee the activity taking place" in the area where inmates change into their uniforms, the county says. And while male officers have been assigned to work the so-called "security workstation" of the female registry, the county says they would never have duties that would require access to the viewing room.

"Under no circumstances are male officers assigned to duties requiring access to the changing room or the viewing room," the county says in a written response, and only in "exigent circumstances" concerning the health, safety, and welfare of the jail would a male officer be allowed to witness the strip search of a female inmate. The sheriff's office, which operates the jail, declined to make someone available for an interview but did respond with written statements to a series of questions from Metro Times. (Additionally, Wayne County has quoted MT an estimated cost of $2,600 to respond to public records requests relating to strip searches.)

Weathington isn't the only one raising red flags. Dezsi also represents a former inmate named Amanda Sumpter with a similar set of allegations, spanning two divisions of the jail and illustrating a number of scenarios where group strip searches take place.

And though Dezsi declined to have either woman speak to MT for this story, which isn't unusual in cases of pending litigation, their allegations speak for themselves, presenting a case of a problematic environment inside the jail that repeatedly affected hundreds of inmates.

Weathington is currently serving a sentence for retail fraud convictions in 1992 and 2005 at the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) Huron Valley Women's Complex in Ypsilanti. She could remain there until January 2025.

Weathington, acting as her own attorney, filed the potential class-action lawsuit in August 2012 that included allegations about jailhouse practices dating back to 2010.

Female inmates were being subjected to monthly strip searches under the guise of safety —locating contraband, according to Weathington. After being released, she violated her parole and was sent back to jail. The searches continued.

Weathington wrote: "During these searches, all of the females were placed outside of their cells, [told] to remove all clothing, place clothes on the dirty floor, bend over, cough, spread their anus, and vagina to be viewed by officers, and there were times when male officers were behind the semi-dark glass on-looking the shakedown."

She continued acting as her own lawyer for 15 months, a Herculean task for anyone, and filed more than 120 affidavits with Wayne County Circuit Court from fellow inmates at the MDOC who made similar claims about Wayne County jails, some of which were more serious in nature.

Then Dezsi stepped in. The court asked if he'd take the case since Weathington didn't have a lawyer. Dezsi, a well-spoken lawyer who previously clerked at the U.S. District Court downtown and for a judge at the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, spent five years with high-profile Oakland County attorney Geoffrey Fieger. At the attorney's firm, he worked on the team that secured Feiger's 2010 acquittal on a 10-count felony indictment for alleged federal campaign violations. Since 2013, he's led his own practice.

Courts will sometimes appoint a lawyer to handle prison civil rights cases, Deszi says, if the judge believes the case has genuine factual issues.

"Because, obviously, they can't do it with somebody who's incarcerated," he says. "So, that's usually when, if the court wants to get somebody involved, they'll start seeking out counsel and say, 'Hey, are you willing to take this case and look at it?'"

With Weathington's file, Dezsi considered a simple question to start: Why, if this is such an issue, hasn't it been addressed before?

After interviewing dozens of female inmates at the Michigan Department of Corrections facility in Ypsilanti who previously were jailed at Wayne County, he found the answer: No one listens.

"In talking to a lot of these ladies, it's become apparent to me that you're dealing with the most vulnerable population of women who are either incarcerated, or were incarcerated," he says. "Usually, you know, with very low education, no resources or means, and most people don't ever listen to them."

The Wayne County jail system has three major facilities with an average population of about 2,600 inmates, including pretrial and sentenced felons and those imprisoned on misdemeanor charges. The sheriff's office is budgeted to have 594 officers and 71 supervisor positions at the jail.

Weathington's claims focus on treatment at Division 1, the Andrew C. Baird Detention Facility in downtown Detroit — which houses male and female inmates who are in their pretrial phase or sentenced, or those who need daily mental health services — and Division 3, the William Dickerson Detention Facility in Hamtramck.

Should you find yourself in one of those locations, these are the three ways you'll be strip-searched, according to the case, in addition to disrobing in the registry upon arrival downtown.

1. If you have a hearing, you are required to leave your bag of linen prior to the proceedings, and you are also required to strip in the corridors adjacent to the housing area, Weathington says. Searches here took place in groups of six to 10, she says. Weathington testified that male officers regularly work in stations that could overlook the area. If they happened to walk by on their way to another unit, they could view the search, she says.

"They can just walk past and see you," Weathington says. "You know, it's nothing to shield you from that."

And though the county produced schedules that show a "number of men that were assigned to work in the women's units," Dezsi says their response was that the men are only in place for "exigent circumstances," meaning if there was an emergency. Why and how they were scheduled for such emergencies is unknown.

2. Sanitation searches, as they're colloquially called, occur inside Division 3 at the Dickerson Correctional Facility in Hamtramck. During these herding operations, 30 to 50 inmates would be gathered in one of the facility's multi-purpose gyms for a mass strip search. The rooms, she says, have a control panel where male deputies would be stationed during such searches. Asked if there was any reason why she believed male deputies couldn't see the search, Weathington says, "No, there's no reason."

Wayne County has said in court filings it categorically denies this accusation. "It is the policy of the Wayne County Sheriff's Office to afford inmates as much privacy as possible during an individual search," county attorneys wrote. "Consequently, generally inmates are generally strip searched in their cells, or taken in groups and searched in a restroom/shower area, or the pod supply room."

In response to questions from MT, the county concedes that group strip searches have been conducted in the past, but the practice has been discontinued. Those searches "to the best of our knowledge" were conducted in groups of five or less at a time, the county says, "not three dozen."

You'll also be strip searched in order to receive a fresh uniform or bedding linen. Male deputies can be stationed in adjacent work areas called "bubbles" that overlook and have a view of the housing units called "pods." Each pod can house 64 inmates. Weathington says to receive a fresh uniform, inmates would step out of their cells on the fifth floor and tell the on-site officer what they needed, then disrobe.

If a male officer is in "control" of uniforms or linen, he passes off the distribution task to a female trustee, Weathington says. But, she says, the male officer stays in between a set of two doors while linen and uniforms are passed out. That area has a window that provides the male officer a clear view of the female inmates.

Asked if the process takes place as Weathington describes, the county says that's not the case. "Male officers do not distribute linen to female inmates. Linen exchange is conducted by female officers and/or female trustees," the county says, adding that female inmates are required to fully disrobe in order to receive fresh linen.

That point was contradicted by Weathington's Dec. 3 testimony, when a county attorney pressed her with a line of questioning that deviates into more intimate matters:

"Is it your testimony that ... that when you go for your linen exchange that you are fully disrobed?" the attorney asked.

"Except for your bras and panties," Weathington responded. "If you have on bras and panties."

"OK," he said.

"Everybody doesn't have those," Weathington continued.

"Did you, Ma'am?" he asked.

"Pardon me?" she said.

"Did you have a bra and panties on?" he clarified.

"Yes," she said.

The county declined to answer if the questions had relevance to the legal issues at-hand, saying it "does not believe it is prudent to publicly disclose the legal strategies employed by its lawyers during litigation proceedings."

Robert Sedler, a distinguished professor at Wayne State University's law school, says it wouldn't appear to be pertinent to the constitutional question of the case — that is, whether group strip searches, or those conducted in an area where male officers could observe, constitutes an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

But there's plenty more beyond the physical circumstances at play here for the plaintiffs. And it's not as if other inmates haven't complained about them.

"I have heard other women say something in retrospect to officers saying this isn't right," Weathington said. "'Why am I getting naked out here in the hall?'"

And then there's this.

"Well, I have seen some women that were on their menstrual cycle and they're very ashamed and they get offended," she said. "And the officer used to tell them, 'Don't worry about it, you take care of it when you get in the cell.' But you still have to strip search."

The county offers a description of a more professional environment, saying, "We have sanitary napkins readily available for all female inmates who alert us that they are on their menstrual period."

Wayne County's defense in court so far can be summarized thusly: Discredit the inmate. She is, after all, an inmate. So having yet to address the merits of the case head-on, the county is engaging in a mud-slinging campaign of sorts.

• Weathington has presented four grievances she filed regarding strip searches. (Wayne County says they were "fraudulently created, post Weathington's release from jail." The county says it has received an average of 4,800 grievances per year, since 2012, and is "not aware of any" being related to strip searches.)

• Weathington has been arrested a number of times on charges of retail fraud. (She must be a liar.)

• Inmates can't see who is on the other side of the two-way mirror in the registry area and housing units. (They must have misheard male voices on the other side.)

• Weathington has filed lawsuits in the past, even joined some class-action lawsuits. (Those cases went nowhere. This complaint must be frivolous.)

• Weathington says she was sexually assaulted when she was growing up, a deep scar in her past that was ripped anew when she was forced to stand naked in front of male prison staffers. (Wayne County attorneys say they don't believe the incident took place. "Actually, [Wayne County] believes the plaintiff never was sexually assaulted as a teenager," county attorneys wrote in a filing last month [Ed note: emphasis by the county], "She has never treated with any mental health professional for the alleged trauma, and the only mental health treatment she has received while at MDOC has been related to her physical ailments and her denial of parole.")

To accept the county at its word, however, would mean accepting Weathington is simply lying.

The concept of opposite-gender observations of inmates during a search isn't an uncommon legal issue. Last fall, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled it was "plainly unconstitutional" for a county jail in the state to have a male guard videotape strip searches of female inmates. In his opinion, the judge shot down the jail's argument that male officers simply looked away, saying it would do "little, for most female inmates, to diminish the sense of embarrassment, humiliation, and vulnerability that she must inevitably feel."

David Milton, the attorney who represented the female inmates, says, "Unless there's some sort of compelling penological reason" to conduct a strip search in groups or in the view of officers of the opposite sex, "then it is a serious invasion of privacy."

And while the U.S. Supreme Court has held that strip searches of anyone who's arrested — even for minor offenses — is legal, experts say searches that take place in areas where male officers could observe, and in groups of as many as 50 women, would violate the Fourth Amendment.

"If they're doing them all the time, it is more invasive," says Eve Primus, law professor at the University of Michigan. "If they're doing them en masse, then there's not only the privacy intrusion that the individual feels, there's also the exposure of her private parts to other people regularly that she would not have chosen to expose her private parts to."

Weathington's case has yet to be certified as a class-action suit, but she isn't alone: In December, Dezsi filed a complaint on behalf of another former inmate, Sumpter, who makes similar allegations.

Sumpter is a 22-year-old Detroit resident who never had any previous run-ins with the law, according to Dezsi, before the case that landed her in Wayne County Jail. "She's not someone who has been in and out of prisons or jails," he says.

Sumpter was involved in an automobile accident; she was behind the wheel and a friend in the car was "seriously hurt." The family of her friend pressed charges, Dezsi says. According to MDOC's Offender Trafficking Information System, Sumpter was eventually convicted on three counts of reckless driving. She was granted parole last August.

During her monthlong stay at Wayne County Jail in October and November of 2012, though, Sumpter "had just no idea what should or shouldn't be happening in jail," Dezsi says.

"All of a sudden, she's in this environment where she's having to disrobe, take off her clothes, there's guys around in the hallways working in the booths."

Sumpter was one of the inmates who signed affidavits for Weathington. Dezsi connected with her after and filed her lawsuit against the county. It contained the same allegations Dezsi had already heard: Hundreds of female inmates "would see and hear the male officers laughing and otherwise mocking them while standing naked and being forced to expose themselves," and that group searches "were conducted without reasonable suspicion that any particular inmates were in the possession of contraband."

"They're being exposed to these conditions where they're being mocked and exploited," Dezsi says. "It's just wrong on so many levels."

Ryan Felton

Ryan Felton was born in 1990 and spent the majority of his childhood growing up in Livonia. In 2009, after a short stint at Eastern Michigan University, he moved to Detroit where he has remained ever since. After graduating from Wayne State University’s journalism program, he went on to work as a staff writer...
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