The Judiciary Committee opted Thursday to explore purchasing body scanners to reduce the need for strip searches within Connecticut prisons rather than requiring correctional staff to document probable cause before conducting a search.
With bipartisan support, the panel approved a proposal that would require the Department of Correction to report to the legislature by next February on the procurement of body scanning machines like those used to screen passengers at airports. The state will also be required to request proposals to purchase the scanners.
The language passed Thursday represents a stark shift from the original intent of the bill, which had been written to require correction officers to document probable cause articulating their belief that an incarcerated person had concealed contraband before conducting a strip search.
The committee’s co-chair Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said that lawmakers would also be having conversations with DOC officials regarding the agency’s directives on strip searches.
“Depending on where that conversation goes, there will be potentially a follow-up bill to do some of the things we’re intending to do,” Winfield said. “I will just say this to those listening: whatever an individual did, I think we all recognize that we have human beings in our prisons and they should be treated as such.”
During a public hearing, proponents of that policy argued that the state should discontinue strip searches because they humiliated and dehumanized the people subjected to them. Correctional officials and employees argued the searches were necessary to minimize the presence of weapons and drugs in prisons.
Lawmakers discussed the possibility of purchasing body scanners as an alternative to strip searches during the hearing. A 2017 report conducted by the state of Washington concluded the machines would cost about $225,000 each, according to Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the committee.
On Thursday, Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said the body scanner study required under the bill’s new language was a “great step forward,” even if it was not the result that advocates had been pressing for.
“I don’t think anybody would disagree that a strip search is demeaning and dehumanizing,” Kissel said. “And yet we have to balance that with the need to make sure there’s no contraband allowed into the facilities, not only for the protection of corrections officers — the men and women whose boots are on the ground — but also other inmates that want to live in as safe an environment as humanly possible.”
Others had concerns about removing the elements of the bill that had required correction staff to document probable cause before conducting a strip search. Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, cited incidents in which correctional staff had brought contraband items into prisons.
“I want to make sure that as we move forward that we are addressing this in a way that is most meaningful and it’s not just the fluff, feel good [legislation],” Porter said. She questioned what the legislature intended to do about issues around strip searches while waiting on the report from the Correction Department.
Winfield said he hoped to make progress on those issues when lawmakers met with Correction Department officials to discuss the agency’s administrative directives.
“If we can’t [make progress], we’ll try it by legislation and if that doesn’t work like the many, many other things we work on, then we’ll come back again and again and again,” Winfield said.