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Case Over Invasive Prison Search Revived

MANHATTAN (CN) - New York prison guards must face claims that they violated the rights of a female inmate who says officers held her down to let a man inspect her vagina for cotton, the Second Circuit ruled.

Though a federal judge had previously sided with the corrections officers on the case, the Second Circuit on Monday faulted that lower court for its failure to consider whether the search "offends contemporary standards of decency."

With evidence showing that the inmate suffered bruising and possibly a three-inch cut from the encounter, the court said "such injuries may suggest that the use of force here was objectively excessive."

Audra Lynn Harris had serving a four-year sentence at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for burglary at the time of the search.

Designated as a prisoner with "highest level" mental illness, Harris was taken for one-on-one observation after a "series of incidents" in April 2010.

Claiming that the guards balked when she wanted privacy in the observation room to change, Harris says three female officers, Ella Anderson, Valerie Bryant, and Robin Trotter, tore off her clothes and threw the smock at her.

Whether the mattress in the room was already ripped open, Harris began taking out its stuffing and trying to stick the cotton onto the windows of the observation room.

"I felt humiliated. I felt like I had been raped, and nobody would help me," she said at her deposition in 2012, as quoted in Monday's ruling.

Harris says the three female guards then grabbed her, threw her to the ground, and forcibly opened her legs while a male guard named Michael Miller checked her vagina to see if there was any cotton there. She was later tranquilized with anti-psychotic medication.

"I tried to keep my legs closed, and they pulled my legs apart, lift up my smock," Harris testified. "And they opened my legs and he at my legs, between my legs."

Having filed at least 30 grievances against corrections officers while behind bars alleging abuse, faked reports and harassment, Harris sued the corrections officers in 2011 over the search. The federal complaint contends that the inspection violated her constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and from cruel and unusual punishment.

None of the four corrections officers Harris sued offered evidence to contradict the claims, merely denying the search in their briefs before the U.S. District Court. The inmate-misbehavior report from that day detailed only Harris' behavior with the mattress and did not mention any subsequent search.

The Second Circuit's 35-page ruling on the case Monday acknowledges prisoners enjoy a limited right to bodily privacy, but says a search's constitutionality depends greatly on the manner, place and person conducting search.

If Harris was searched by a man in a public area and for undocumented reasons, as she claims, the search may have been unconstitutional.

"Best-practice standards in prison management typically discourage cross-gender strip searches," the unsigned opinion states.

The three-judge panel behind Monday's reversal notes that it was unclear from the record why a male guard performed the search in a "violent and forceful manner."

"Cross-gender strip searches of inmates conducted in the absence of an emergency or other exigent circumstances are generally frowned upon," the opinion states.

As it is unclear whether the guards were concerned extra cotton would be used in a suicide attempt later, the judges said the corrections officers should have provided the court with evidence to justify the search.

"Without record evidence supporting the officer's justification, courts will have difficulty assessing whether the officer had an objectively reasonable basis for conducting the search," the ruling states.

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