March 12, 2010

Woman files suit in jail's use of strip searches

TREVOR MAXWELL

— By

Staff Writer

A federal lawsuit filed by an Old Orchard Beach woman is rekindling a legal debate over strip searches at Maine jails.

During her three-day incarceration at the Cumberland County Jail in the summer of 2007, Marci Ladakakos claims she was strip-searched repeatedly and forced to shower in front of male inmates and guards as they ridiculed her.

Ladakakos, 30, now seeks damages from Cumberland County for what she calls a violation of her civil rights. She filed a lawsuit in state court in November, and it was transferred to federal court in Portland this month.

''She has been traumatized and embarrassed by this entire incident,'' her lawyer, Neal Weinstein, said. ''It's amazing to me that they think they are above the law.''

Sheriff Mark Dion, though, said Ladakakos was on suicide watch during her time at the jail, and the allegations could not have transpired as she claims they did. Dion denied any misconduct and firmly defended the jail's strip search policies.

''Our protocols are pretty clear, in terms of the place it's done, the manner it is done,'' Dion said. ''As far as this gawking, parade type of thing happening, no. As a matter of practice, that can't happen.''

The case is reminiscent of two federal class-action lawsuits that played out in recent years in York and Knox counties.

Both cases centered on strip search policies at the county jails, and both resulted in multi-million dollar settlements to former inmates.

York County settled a class-action lawsuit in 2005 by paying a total of $3.3 million to hundreds of people who had been arrested and processed at the county jail between October 1996 and April of 2004.

That case was initiated by Michele Nilsen of North Andover, Mass., Michael Goodrich of Biddeford and Charles Neville of Kennebunkport.

Nilsen was arrested in 1999 on a charge of driving with a suspended license. She was forced to strip and shower in front of a jail guard. At the time, the York County jail required that procedure for all people detained overnight, regardless of what they were brought in for.

Knox County also paid out more than $3 million to settle a class-action lawsuit over its strip search policies. That case was initiated by Dale Dare, of Manchester, N.H. Dare said he was strip searched at the jail in Rockland in 1999, after his arrest on an outstanding warrant for failing to appear at a hearing.

Dare and other former inmates said it was standard practice for guards at the jail to strip search all detainees during processing. Attorneys for the county denied those allegations, but the county agreed to settle the case.

The class included an estimated 7,500 people who had been charged with nonviolent crimes and strip searched at the Knox County Jail between November of 1996 and December of 2004. Only 366 of those people actually applied for compensation.

The settlement in the Knox County case also included an order from a federal judge that barred jail personnel from strip searching people without a reasonable suspicion that they have illegal weapons, drugs or other contraband. Those restrictions also were adopted by York County, in the aftermath of the lawsuit there.

In this most recent case, Ladakakos was arrested and brought to the Cumberland County Jail on July 10, 2007, for failure to appear in court. She had been charged with four felony counts of theft, and one misdemeanor count of theft.

''When she came in, there was a medical assessment done. As a consequence, she was placed on suicide precaution,'' Dion said.

A female guard strip searched Ladakakos and monitored her as she changed from her clothes into jail clothes, Dion said. Ladakakos was placed in an isolated cell in the jail's medical unit, where she remained under 24-hour surveillance until her release on July 12. Shower curtains are opaque so guards and other staff members cannot see through them, Dion said. He said male guards and male inmates would not have had any access to see Ladakakos during any searches or showers.

''Our goal is to make sure that we preserve people's dignity and sense of privacy'' while also maintaining a secure environment, Dion said.

The strip search policy at the Cumberland County Jail matches the model policy recommended by several national corrections agencies, Dion said.

The American Correctional Association, which accredited the jail for the second time earlier this year, reviewed the strip search policy as part of that process.

In the jail's written policy on search procedures, the first rule pertains to the treatment of inmates.

''Correctional staff will conduct searches in the least degrading manner possible. At no time are searches to be used to degrade, harass, embarrass or punish an inmate,'' the policy states. ''Correctional staff must demonstrate the utmost respect for the inmates during the search, and recognize that searches of any sort can be degrading or humiliating. Searches must be conducted in a manner that respects the inmate's dignity while at the same time not sacrificing the security concerns of the facility.''

Weinstein, the lawyer for Ladakakos, said there is a difference between policies on paper and the behavior that happens inside the jail.

''I don't think the sheriff would allow this to happen if he knew about it,'' Weinstein said. He said mistreatment of inmates is covered up by a ''code of silence,'' among guards. He questioned why repeated searches of Ladakakos were necessary when she was in an isolated cell the entire time.

''She couldn't bring anything into or out of the cell, so why do they need to strip search her twice a day? It makes no sense at all,'' Weinstein said. ''It appears that it was done to harass her.

''They were all laughing at her. She was crying continuously when all of this was going on.''

Staff writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

tmaxwell@pressherald.com

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