Barbara Fair, an organizer with Stop Solitary CT, speaks at a press conference on March 28, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Opponents of the use of strip searches within Connecticut prisons sought Tuesday to build support for a bill curtailing the practice as the legislation faces a Friday deadline to advance out of the Judiciary Committee.

During a press conference in the Legislative Office Building, advocates and a state legislator objected to the Department of Correction’s long-standing policies using strip searches in an effort to prevent contraband items from entering prisons.

“You’ve heard the commissioner say and other correction officials say this deeply humiliating, degrading and dehumanizing searches are done for safety and security. We feel they are about power and control,” Barbara Fair, a lead organizer with Stop Solitary CT, said, “the ultimate control that people lose of their own bodies within DOC.”

Fair and others, including Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, and state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, pressed for passage of a bill that would require correctional staff to document probable cause articulating their belief that an incarcerated person had concealed contraband before conducting a strip search. 

The change would basically eliminate the routine searches of offenders as they come and go from facilities on work details, transfers or participate in visits with family and friends.

Terri Ricks, a formerly incarcerated person who spoke at the press conference, said the practice was especially traumatic for people who had previously been the victims of sexual abuse. Ricks said she stopped participating in visits with her daughter during the last 10 months of her incarceration in order to avoid being subjected to strip searches. 

Porter, who said her own son had been traumatized by incidents involving the searches while incarcerated, said the legislation was a small part of what advocates of changing prison policies hope to accomplish.

Terri Ricks speaks at a press conference on March 28, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

“This bill, Senate Bill 1196, is a requirement and it’s just the beginning,” Porter said. “I don’t want people to think that we would be satisfied when this gets passed because there’s much more work to do behind what people are subjected to behind these prison walls.” 

However, the proposal faces opposition both from the Department of Correction and from the labor unions representing prison staff, who argue the searches are necessary to minimize the introduction of dangerous items like drugs and weapons into state prisons. 

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

When the bill was raised for a public hearing earlier this month, Patrick McGoldrick, a member of AFSCME Local 1565 and officer at Garner Correctional Institution, described situations in which routine strip searches uncovered weapons, potentially preventing serious injuries to either incarcerated people or staff members. 

“My main issue with this section is it purports to protect inmates that reside in our correctional facilities and in reality it appeases those individuals who cause chaos within those facilities at the cost of the safety of the rest of the population,” McGoldrick said. 

Meanwhile, DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros worried about an increase in the prevalence of drugs like fentanyl and overdoses if the searches were curtailed. 

Under questioning from members of the Judiciary Committee, Quiros said his agency was exploring the potential for installing body scanners, like those found at airports, to decrease the need for strip searches within Connecticut prisons. 

“That is a technology that I’m looking into so if there’s area where we can move away from strip search, I’m open to that,” Quiros said. 

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the committee, told Quiros that the state of Washington had explored implementing body scanners in 2017 and concluded that body scanners would cost about $225,000 each. Stafstrom said those costs would be offset by “huge savings” through a reduction in staff hours dedicated to strip searches.

On Tuesday, the panel’s other co-chairman, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said he expects the Judiciary Committee to vote on some version of the strip search bill before it hits its Friday deadline. What will be included in that policy was still unclear. Winfield said he hoped to advance a bill that had a chance of being signed into law.

“These things are fluid,” Winfield said. “My intention is to get whatever form it is out of the committee… My goal is to not put a bill out that goes somewhere and dies or goes to the governor and gets vetoed. My goal is to do as much to change the system that we have toward the system that ultimately all of us want.”