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Labia-lift searches of female prisoners have to stop, ACLU tells Ari Zavaras

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A few months ago we first reported on the "labia lift" -- an extremely invasive search process that the Colorado Department of Corrections has started using at its Denver women's prison.

Now the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado has taken notice -- and demanded that the DOC immediately halt this "new and degrading type of body cavity search."

In a letter to DOC executive director Ari Zavaras, ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein and others say that they've received numerous complaints about the process, which inmates must undergo after work assignments and seeing visitors. They claim guards have threatened to pepper spray women who balk at the search; that the humiliation of the search discourages visits from family and even attorneys; that it can retraumatize inmates with a history of sexual assault; and that, absent a good reason to suspect someone is smuggling contraband, the intense genital scrutiny is unnecessary and quite possibly unconstitutional.

"The new search is in addition to the intrusive searches that prisoners already endure at DWCF," the letter states. "It is virtually inconceivable that the new requirement that prisoners hold open their labia contributes anything to prison security."

DOC officials have maintained that the search process is not new, really -- it just hasn't been applied at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility until recently. But letters from inmates suggest the policy is now in frequent use, with little consistency in how or why the search is conducted.

As one prisoner wrote to the ACLU: "The lift is treated differently by officers, but generally involves spreading your legs and parting your outer labia so an officer can do a visual inspection of your genitals. I have had to perform this procedure simply standing; from a sitting position with my legs spread eagle and having a flashlight shined at my genitals; from a standing position with a foot perched on a toilet and an officer's face inches from my genitals; in front of multiple officers and once in front of an officer and two Life Safety trainees."

And, points out another correspondent, the whole procedure comes at the end of an already thorough strip search: "The 'proper' search is as follows: Remove all clothes, as an officer searches the seams/pockets/waistband and stand completely naked. Open the mouth; sweep fingers around tongue and along gum line. Fold forward ears while turning the head to expose behind them. Run fingers through hair, removing any ties or combs and if needed, bend over to shake long hair. Lift arms and if breasts are large, lift breasts. Turn around; lift each foot, wiggling toes. Turn your back to the officer, bend over, squat, and grab buttocks while coughing. The addition of the 'labia lift' is to stand or sit, facing the officer, while spreading the labia open wide."

Prisoner complaints about the procedure resulted in a memo from the warden, stating that the policy would not be modified. But that was before the ACLU adopted that tone prison officials know so well: Stern-letter-lawsuit-to-follow.

To read the ACLU's letter and for more information on the policy, go here.

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