Incarceration Nation

Stop Strip Searching My Mom!

By Kenneth Hartman

Every now and then, the prison system lets the mask of respectability and reason slip off enough to see their real face, the face of the oppressor, of the thug in jackboots, of the truth.

Out here in California, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has implemented a new policy of screening visitors as they come onto the grounds. Randomly selected visitors are compelled to provide a swab that is then scanned for the trace presence of a variety of drugs. Their machine tests in the parts-per-billion range, is notoriously prone to false positives, and it’s well known that any number of everyday items—like currency, like gas station pumps, like ATM’s—are likely contaminated by prohibited substances. Regardless, if a visitor is found to be positive, they must leave, accept a noncontact, behind-the-glass visit, or if they want a contact visit, submit to a fully naked strip search.

To be clear, this means the visitor must remove all of their clothing including underwear. They must bend over and expose their rectum to visual examination. Women must then squat over a mirror placed on the ground between their legs to expose their genitalia. It is a grotesque, degrading, and traumatizing experience. It is fundamentally dehumanizing. When performed on captured populations in war zones, it is considered by many experts to be a war crime.

In the past few weeks, a 77-year-old woman who could not speak English and who was denied a translator, submitted to a strip search because she was led to believe she would never see her son again if she declined. Although this poor woman recently had knee replacement surgery, she was ordered to squat naked, repeatedly, over a mirror obviously in pain. In another instance, a young woman declined and was sent home. The next weekend, desperate to hold her husband, she was advised that the punishment would now be doubled to two strip searches. Another woman, in the space of one hour, tested positive four times for four different things.

The system claims all of this abuse is needed to stop the flow of drugs into the prisons. But only visitors have to submit to a strip search. All others entering are only subject to an airport type pat-down search. In other words, only our visitors are forced to be violated in order to give us a hug. This is fundamentally wrong, unfair, and outrageous by any ethical measure.

Of course the deeper truth is prison administrators would like to do away with contact visiting all together. They’ve always seen it as an irritant, at least. Our families and friends are usually the only people willing to speak up on our behalf.

Taking away contact visiting is just another way to drive our loved ones away from us and away from this ugly reality.

As to the drug problem that, for some inexplicable reason, calls for our visitors, and only our visitors, to be abused, it’s only inside the prisons that the discredited notion of a war on drugs continues unchecked. Someone needs to clue the prison system into the new reality—the war is over, drugs won, and the punitive approach has been discarded in favor of treatment. (Something they still don’t do!)

I learned a long time ago that the only thing the prison system responds to is public pressure. They have to be reminded that the prisons are public entities, and the public has a say in how they’re run.

So, if you think strip searching old ladies trying to see their sons is unreasonable, if you think scapegoating visitors is unfair, I urge you to sign our online petition to Governor Brown.

Go to to “Stop Strip Searching My Mom!” and sign on. And please urge all of your friends and family to do the same thing. Change.org1. “Stop Strip Searching My Mom!”

Thanks for your help!

Kenneth E. Hartman is the Executive Director of The Other Death Penalty Project.

Write to Kenneth:

Kenneth E. Hartman, C-19449 


P.O. Box 4430

Lancaster, CA 93539-4430