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The High Court’s Body-Cavity Fixation

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In a case that may summarize conservative judicial attitudes toward human dignity, Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, the Supreme Court has decided on the claim of Albert Florence, a man apprehended for the well-known offense of traveling in an automobile while being black. Florence was hustled off to jail over a couple of bench warrants involving minor fines that had in fact been paid—evidence of which he produced to unimpressed police officers. He was then twice subjected to humiliating strip searches involving the inspection of body cavities. Florence sued, arguing that this process violated his rights.

There is very little doubt under the law about the right of prison authorities to subject a person convicted or suspected of a serious crime to conduct a strip search before introducing someone to the general prison population. But does the right to conduct a strip search outweigh the right to dignity and bodily integrity of a person who committed no crime whatsoever, who is apprehended based on a false suspicion that he hadn’t discharged a petty fine—for walking a dog without a leash, say, or turning a car from the wrong lane? Yes. In a 5–4 decision, the Court backed the position advocated by President Obama’s Justice Department, upholding the power of jailers against the interests of innocent citizens. As Justice Anthony Kennedy reasons in his majority opinion (in terms that would be familiar to anyone who has lived in a police state), who is to say that innocent citizens are really innocent? “[P]eople detained for minor offenses,” he writes, “can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.” We should assume, then, that such people are menacing, guilty, and capable of great crimes.

The decision reflects the elevation of the prison industry’s interest in maintaining order in its facilities above the interests of individuals. And it does so by systematically misunderstanding the reasons behind strip searches. Kennedy insists that they are all done for the aim of fostering order, and he backs up this position with exemplary bits of pretzel logic. For instance, he suggests that a person stopped for failing to yield at an intersection may well have heroin taped to his scrotum, and may attempt to bring it into the prison to which he is taken. In advancing such rationales, the Court ignores the darker truth about strip searches: they are employed for the conscious humiliation and psychological preparation of prisoners, as part of a practice designed to break them down and render them submissive.

Just as the Florence decision was being prepared, the Department of Defense released a previously classified training manual used to prepare American pilots for resistance to foreign governments that might use illegal and immoral techniques to render them cooperative. Key in this manual are the precise practices highlighted in Florence. Body-cavity searches are performed, it explains, to make the prisoner “feel uncomfortable and degraded.” Forced nudity and invasion of the body make the prisoner feel helpless, by removing all items that provide the prisoner with psychological support. In other words, the strip search is an essential step in efforts to destroy an individual’s sense of self-confidence, well-being, and even his or her identity. The value of this tool has been recognized by authoritarian governments around the world, and now, thanks to the Roberts Court, it will belong to the standard jailhouse repertoire in the United States. Something to consider the next time you walk Fido without scooping up his droppings—a cop may well be watching, ready to seize the opportunity to invade your rectum.

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