Court OKs Challenge to Jail’s White Underwear Rule

CHICAGO (CN) – An Illinois sheriff department’s white-only underwear policy, ostensibly meant to prevent female detainees from extracting ink from their underwear to tattoo themselves, is unreasonable, the Seventh Circuit ruled.

Joan Mulvania sued the Rock Island County Sheriff after she was arrested, claiming the county jail strip searched her with excessive force and without accommodation for her mental distress.

The Chicago-based appeals court on Thursday dismissed Mulvania’s individual claims, but allowed her challenge to the jail’s unusual underwear policy, a claim joined by 10 other women.

Under the policy, a woman who enters the jail wearing colored underwear must remove them under the supervision of jail staff, then contact family or friends outside the jail to bring them white underwear – and go without in the meantime, for an indeterminate period.

The detainees describe the experience of removing their underwear while under the gaze of jail staff as “very uncomfortable,” “embarrassing” and “humiliating.”

At least one female detainee says she was deprived of underwear while on her period.

The sheriff defended the policy as a means of preventing detainees from extracting the ink from their colored underwear to tattoo themselves.

However, there are no known instances of this ever occurring in the Rock Island jail – or anywhere else for that matter, according to court records.

The sheriff simply testified that he was “told…when [he] wrote the policy” that this issue was a security concern.

A federal judge ruled for the sheriff, but the Seventh Circuit reversed Thursday in favor of the detainees and remanded the case.

“We agree that the white underwear policy seems odd and that the sheriff’s explanation seems at least questionable,” U.S. Circuit Judge David Hamilton said, writing for a three-judge panel.

Hamilton noted that some other jails have also mandated inmates wear white underwear, but that the policy is not standard in the prison industry, and was not consistently enforced at the Rock Island jail either.

“A reasonable trier of fact could find that the white underwear policy is not rationally related to a legitimate governmental objective, or is at least excessive in relation to such a purpose,” the judge wrote.

However, the appeals court agreed with the lower court’s denial of class certification for the underwear claim, because the proposed class is not sufficiently numerous to warrant class treatment.