"The Ultimate Humiliation": What It's Like To Be Prison Strip-Searched

Sue Ellen Allen—a former prisoner, the author of Slumber Party from Hell, and founder of the non-profit GINA's Team—reached out to us after reading our Conversation series about women in prison. She also contributed a story about battling cancer behind bars

One of the greatest unknowns about prison—and certainly one of the most frightening—is the strip search. What is it? How does it work? What do they do? How can I avoid it? I wasn’t going to write about it, but then I realized it’s the elephant in the room and cannot be ignored.

I had my first strip search upon entering the Maricopa County Jail when I changed from my street clothes into the infamous black and white stripes chosen to add extra humiliation to the whole jail experience. Honestly, I was in a total daze. I’d been up for about 30 hours. I’d been crammed into a 12 x 12 room with 35 other women. I’d had a tiny bit of unidentifiable food and I was too nauseated to eat because I’d had my sixth session of chemotherapy only two weeks earlier.

Then a grumpy officer told me to strip for her and numbly I complied. Carefully, I folded my black gabardine slacks and pink blouse. (Would I ever see them again?) Then I learned there is a proper routine for a strip search. Starting at the top, first you open your mouth widely so the officer can see that you aren’t hiding drugs. Then, you lean forward and show behind your ears after which you flip your hair to show nothing is hiding there. Most of the women had very long hair, but I’d lost mine to chemo. When she automatically told me to flip my hair, I must have looked sad because, despite her gruffness, she did look a bit awkward.

Next, I had to spread my toes and show her the bottoms of my feet. Finally, she told me to squat and cough three times and while I was bent over, I was told to spread the cheeks of my derriere—she didn’t call it that, though. I suppose this is the ultimate humiliation for any human being.

I tried to take my mind to another place. I hadn’t always been “old and dignified.” Once upon a time, as a student at the University of Texas, I lived in a dorm, sharing a bathroom with three other young women of nice, modest families. After a few weeks, we tossed our modesty out of the window. Often all of us would be in the bathroom at once . . . one brushing her teeth, one using the toilet, one in the tub, and one just hanging out, sharing gossip, beauty tips, or class notes. Sybil was usually the one in the tub. I still have a picture of her surrounded by bubbles with her strawberry blonde hair piled high on her head, sparkling blue eyes, creamy white skin, and always her pearls. She loved those pearls. They were a graduation gift from her grandmother who told her to wear them often so the natural oil from her skin would add luster to the pearls. Our nakedness didn’t bother us then. Why should it bother me now?

I suppose it’s the vulnerability. I always felt so vulnerable in my nakedness and if the officer was hostile, it made it worse. It must be a bit like rape. Rape is the ultimate degradation for any woman, when she feels completely and utterly helpless and vulnerable. I’ve never been raped, but many of the women in prison have. They talk about it casually to gloss over the pain, but I wondered if the strip search brings back that pain, the fear, the helplessness.

All the inmates who work off the yard are stripped every day just in case they are trying to smuggle in a pair of scissors from the print shop or a needle from the garment factory. Since I don’t work off-site, I am spared that. The strip is bad enough, but the strip shack is freezing in the winter and broiling in the summer, just to add injury to insult.

I did have to strip every day when I was going to radiation after my mastectomy. Radiation is bad enough, but the strip just added to the agony. Inmates are also stripped after every visit in case some visitor tried to smuggle in God knows what . . . drugs, lip gloss and perfume samples are pretty popular.

There are some women inside who try to avoid strips at all costs. Bev was 64 years-old, very fragile and dignified. She hadn’t seen her family in years because she hated to be stripped. She was an extreme case. On the other hand, some women never got visits. They would have been thankful for a post-visit strip. I was grateful for my visits and tried to just zip through the strip. As always there’s a drill. After every visit, four inmates at a time go into a classroom and stand between long tables that are positioned at angles to create dividers and a semblance of privacy. The officers can see the inmates; the other inmates can’t see each other. For every inmate it’s automatic. Strip off the clothes, place on the chair, and wait for the officer. Start at the top . . . aahh, flip, squat, cough, spread, dress, done. Think of Sybil and her pearls in the bubble-bath.

You know what I hated? I hated that since my mastectomy, I only had one breast and I stood there in my nakedness with my lopsided chest on view, feeling vulnerable. I decided to combat the feeling and I stood up, completely straight and proud. I knew I always had a choice and I chose to stand straight, lopsided or not.

Everything in life is a choice. Although they were limited, I made choices every day in prison, choices to maintain my sanity, my dignity, my humanity. It was not easy. Some days I was lonely. Some days I was afraid. Some days I cried. But every day I made the choice to stand up straight and walk tall. It’s good to remember we all have choices . . . inside and out.

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