After enduring degrading mass strip searches, incarcerated Illinois women win historic $1.4 million settlement 

On December 8th, 2023, after a 12-year legal battle, a class of ~192 women won a $1.4 million settlement with the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) and the State of Illinois for enduring degrading mass strip searches. Each approved claimant is expected to receive approximately $13,589, making this one of the largest prison strip search settlements ever reached in the United States.

This settlement follows more than 12 years of litigation, including an en banc decision by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that established legal precedent that visual strip searches of convicted prisoners must be carried out reasonably pursuant to the Fourth Amendment, and a 2022 jury trial at which the Plaintiffs won a liability verdict on their Fourth Amendment claims.

On March 31, 2011, Illinois prison guards burst into housing units at Lincoln Correctional Center in full riot gear, brandishing batons, marched women out of those units, and forced them to strip naked and endure humiliating and degrading strip and body cavity searches in full view of onlookers, including men—all as a “training exercise” for correctional officer cadets.

“It was horrific,” Michelle Wells recalls of the morning when the “Orange Crush,” a notorious band of prison guards, stormed through her cellblock at Lincoln Correctional Center, in central Illinois, to conduct a mass shakedown. “They’re not friendly,” she told Truthout in an interview. “When they come in, they come in trashing everything.”

Read more about the settlement and how the strip searches impacted the affected women in Truthout, “12 Years After Degrading Mass Strip Search, Women in Prison Won $1.4M Settlement.”

According to evidence presented during the lawsuit,

“[T]he women were forced to stand while handcuffed—many, for hours—without consideration for their age or medical needs…. They were placed so close to one another that they were touching, or nearly touching, while naked. The women were forced to lift their breasts, spread their buttocks, bend over, expose their vaginal and anal cavities, and squat and cough while cadets and officers visually inspected their private parts….

“Onlookers made degrading comments about the women’s bodies, odor, and hygiene. Menstruating prisoners were forced to remove soiled tampons and sanitary products, exposing the private function of menstruation before a large audience. They were then left to bleed on the floor without replacement supplies, resulting in unhygienic and degrading conditions for all women, who had to stand barefoot on floors contaminated by blood and other bodily fluids.”

After a lengthy trial beginning in May 2022, a jury found IDOC correctional supervisors Melody Hulett, Russell Reynolds, Renee Hatfield, and Troy Dawdy liable for violating the 4th Amendment rights of the women, paving the way for the class action settlement that was approved by the court last Friday.

The lead plaintiffs representing the class of women overcame numerous obstacles to win the settlement over the past twelve years. To get a trial on their Fourth Amendment claims, the women had to overturn an appeals court ruling holding that convicted prisoners lacked any Fourth Amendment rights to reasonable visual strip searches, regardless of the circumstances. After successfully petitioning the appeals court to revisit this ruling en banc, the class won an important 11-1 legal decision that women do not lose their Fourth Amendment rights at the prison door, and visual strip searches in prison must be conducted in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable purpose. The class of women also had to overcome the defendants’ defense of qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that disallows recovery for constitutional violations unless the Plaintiff can show that the legal violation was “clearly established.” 

In addition to the $1.4 million settlement, and as a precondition to settlement, the women negotiated certain voluntary policy changes in the Illinois Department of Corrections’ confidential strip search policies relating to privacy during strip searches and strip searches of prisoners who are menstruating. IDOC also voluntarily agreed to prohibit the conduct of strip searches for the sole purpose of training. Lead attorneys representing the class of women in the suit were Ruth Brown and Russell Ainsworth of the Prisoner Rights Project at Loevy + Loevy.

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