California Prisons End Controversial Visitor Strip Searches

California prison officials are ending visitor strip searches in response to a recent change in state law, but visitors will face increased scrutiny for a year if traces of drugs are detected by dogs or airport-style scanners.

It's the first time visitors will be scrutinized by dogs that previously have been used to search inmates, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Dana Simas said Monday.

Visitors who are spotlighted by a dog or ion scanner but refuse clothed searches face an increasing range of penalties under the revised regulations the department proposed on Friday and will take effect after a public comment period.

A first refusal means no visit that day. A second refusal could bring a loss of visiting privileges for 30 days, while a third could mean no visits for a year. A fourth refusal in a year could result in the permanent revocation of visiting privileges.

The progressive penalties will encourage visitors to submit to the searches, the department said in outlining the new regulations.

Even if a visitor submits to a clothed search and no drugs or other contraband is found, the visitor can't have physical contact with an inmate during that day's visit and must go through the process again the next time he or she visits an inmate within the next 12 months.

The controversial visitor strip searches were banned last summer by state lawmakers, who called them humiliating.

The end was praised by Don Spector of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, who represents inmates and called the nude searches "incredibly intrusive.'' However, he is concerned that officials now are going to base escalating sanctions on the use of drug-sniffing dogs, which he said can be unreliable.

State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, who heads the Senate Public Safety Committee, was pleased the department is using non-threatening dogs that sit down when they detect contraband.

"If someone has a legitimate concern with dogs, we'll work with them,'' including using other ways to search the visitor, Simas said.

Mohamed Shehk, an Oakland-based spokesman for Critical Resistance, which advocates for better conditions for inmates, called the regulations ``illogical at best and harmful at worst'' because the rules apply even if a search finds no contraband.

The budget Gov. Jerry Brown proposed last week calls for spending nearly $8 million for another year of intensive efforts using dogs and other methods at 11 of the state's 34 adult prisons.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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