Mark D. White examines today’s Supreme Court ruling about the legality of strip searches in US jails.
In a decision handed down today, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to allow strip searches of anyone arrested for a crime, even for minor offenses. In his opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy (joined by Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito) defended the constitutionality of the practice based on the interests that corrections officers have in the safety of everybody in jails (including the suspects themselves) and the impossibility of knowing exactly who is likely to have contraband.
While this case raises questions about the proper balance between human rights, dignity, and privacy on the one hand and security and safety on the other—a balance most of us are more familiar with from airports rather than jails—I’d like to highlight instead the basis of one of Justice Kennedy’s arguments, the state of our jails:
It is not surprising that correctional officials have sought to perform thorough searches at intake for disease, gang affiliation, and contraband. Jails are often crowded, unsanitary, and dangerous places. There is a substantial interest in preventing any new inmate, either of his own will or as a result of coercion, from putting all who live or work at these institutions at even greater risk when he is admitted to the general population. (p. 13, emphasis added)
Note that this case is about jails, where suspects are held until they are arraigned, not prisons. We hear plenty about deplorable conditions in prisons but not enough about jails, the inhabitants of which are presumed innocent until found guilty. It’s bad enough that we house our convicted criminals in places that are “crowded, unsanitary, and dangerous,” so isn’t worse that our jails, mere holding cells for those suspected of a crime, can be described in the same terms?
AP Photo/Mark Evans