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"Labia lift" strip searches: ACLU action gooses prison officials into changing degrading policy

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Even under the best of circumstances, prison is an exercise in humiliation. But life just got a little less nasty for female inmates at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility, who no longer have to spread open their genitalia for invasive cavity searches after a family visit.

Pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Colorado has prompted the Colorado Department of Corrections to rethink its notorious "labia lift" procedure at DWCF and other women's prisons.

As first reported here last May, the procedure drew strong protests from prisoners, their families and activists. Several claimed that there was little consistency in the way the searches were conducted, and that the DWCF administration had begun to conduct them with startling frequency, even in situations where there was little reason to suspect contraband.

"It is simply not appropriate for any officer to demand such an invasive examination of our bodies, and it can be abused in many ways," DWCF inmate Krystal Voss wrote to Westword.

In a letter to DOC director Ari Zavaras last month, ACLU officials strongly hinted at a possible lawsuit over the practice. They claimed 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 the intense genital scrutiny is unnecessary and quite possibly unconstitutional.

The DOC has since issued a new policy for strip searches (download .PDF). See page six for the gritty details. While inmates still have to squat and cough, and uncircumcised male prisoners may be asked to retract their foreskin, no labia lifts are now required.

David Shapiro, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, says he's unaware of any state requiring anything similar to Colorado's gynecological searches. "It's definitely unusual," he says. "It's an outlier for corrections."

And now it's out of bounds even in Colorado.

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