by JoAnne Sweeny
Back in May 2019, the Jackson County Detention Center, without any warning to local attorneys, instituted a new security policy that requires all visitors, including inmates’ attorneys, to pass through a metal detector. Seems reasonable in theory but the practice has lead to what, one assumes, is an unintended side-effect: some women’s underwire bras are setting it off. In response, instead of simply using a wand to determine what is setting off the alarm as other prisons do, the Jackson County Detention Center is not letting the women pass until they do not set off the detector. Which means, their bras must come off.
This is not unique to Kansas City. An even more draconian policy was implemented in Lancaster County prison in 2018: visitors were given only two chances to pass the metal detector and women were required to wear a bra under prison rules. These policies resulted in women removing the wire from their bras or buying new ones. A Maryland jail was sued in 2011 after two women were required to take their underwire bras off before visiting even though prison officials had stated four months earlier that underwire bras were allowed.
What makes the situation worse in Kansas City is that this is a detention center, not a prison; almost everyone held there has not been convicted of a crime and is therefore presumed innocent. Moreover, it is attorneys – who have already been vetted by the detention center – who are being turned away. A similar situation in Portland, Maine in 2015 led to official apologies. But in Kansas City, the officials’ response to the attorneys’ complaints has actually added insult to injury.
First, Sheriff Darryl Forté denied that the problem was even happening by calling it “misinformation” and insisting that no one was told to take their bras off. This is technically true but, as one attorney put it, if the choice is entering the detention center sans bra or not seeing your client, the detention center isn’t actually giving you a choice. Similarly, when the issue was brought to the attention of a judge as part of a larger proceeding about the burdens suffered by the public defenders in Jackson County, the (male) judge also denied the problem existed, arguing that no one else seemed to have a problem with it. These denials of the actual experiences of female attorneys are extremely troubling.
Next, the Director of the Department of Corrections, Diana Turner, offered a “solution”: women could keep their underwire on but would only have no contact meetings with inmates, which means that their attorneys would have to see them through glass. As the attorneys have pointed out, this “solution” impedes their ability to meaningfully interact with their clients and build a rapport with them. Using a telephone to communicate through a pane of glass makes it impossible for attorneys to go over evidence with their clients or have them sign documents, which are essential tasks for a lawyer, particularly when their client is still awaiting trial. It’s no wonder that the attorneys found this solution to be a non-starter.
Director Turner also attempted to turn the gender issue into a class issue by accusing the complaining attorneys of “want[ing] privilege” as part of the “educated elite” because they don’t mind that all corrections officers must pass though the same security. Turner argued that attorneys have essentially stated that “it’s reasonable to suspect your people. Your staff is just [corrections officers].” However, no complaining attorney has stated that female corrections officers should be subjected to this policy. Moreover, there may be a reason to treat corrections officers differently; there is no record of an attorney ever smuggling contraband but, just last year, a former Jackson County corrections officer was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison for smuggling contraband. Finally, the detention center strip searches every inmate after they meet with their attorneys so even if attorneys were trying to smuggle in contraband, the corrections officers would catch it. So, this isn’t about contraband at all. Something else is going on here.
Back to the story. Despite Forté and Turners’ best efforts, this issue has not gone away. A letter was signed by over 70 attorneys – men and women – and addressed to prison officials as well as the local legislature. The issue was also publicly taken up by legislator Kristal Williams and last week there was a peaceful protest and a 90-minute meeting of the County Legislature. At the legislative meeting, the attorneys were met with intransigence. Sheriff Forté said they would not change the policy, despite several legislators voicing their concerns. Forté did agree to meet with the complaining attorneys but no date has been set and there is certainly no reason to be hopeful that he will have a change of heart.
Indeed, he has already retaliated. Forté recently filed a Sunshine Act request to see the emails from attorneys to legislator Williams regarding this issue. When criticized, Forté defended his request as an effort to “educate the community about open records, as well as to ascertain facts about alleged comments.” It is unclear what “education” his request will provide or what “facts” he needs to discover.
So, for those keeping score, when women (and, later, men) complained about a policy they found unnecessary, humiliating, and sexist, they were met with: gaslighting, false solutions, accusations of privilege, stonewalling and, finally, retaliation. And this is against attorneys who are well-positioned to fight back. There are 300 female workers at the Jackson County prison and several of them had to buy new underwear just to do their jobs, which Director Turner described positively as these workers “making adjustments” to the policy. However, their union complaints indicate that they would have preferred to not have taken on such an unnecessary expense and merely capitulated to keep their jobs.
But there is a (sort of) happy ending here. A week after the legislative hearing, attorneys have reported that their underwire bras are no longer setting off the metal detectors, though Sherriff Forté has stated that the machines were not changed. One can only hope that this is the end of the saga.
Addendum from Bridget Crawford: Jackson County Sheriff Forté @sheriffforte has blocked Feminist Law Professors from following him on Twitter because of questions sent by me, from the FLP Twitter account, asking for clarification of the policies at the Jackson County Detention Center. For that reason, I have added the (general) Twitter handle of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office to the title of this blog post, so that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office will receive a Twitter notice of this blog post. The actions of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office are attracting negative national attention. I believe that Sheriff Forte’s blocking this account on Twitter is unconstitutional under Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump, 302 F. Supp. 3d 541 (2018). Sheriff Forté seems to believe that he does not have to respect the First Amendment rights of members of the public who question him respectfully. Let’s see if this blog post gets us banned by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, too.