Los Angeles Times
Suit details ‘terrifying’ strip search
Attorneys say inmates frisked at gunpoint during a lockdown at Men’s Central Jail.
The inmates at Men’s Central Jail said they were ordered out of their cells and told to remove their clothes.
After searching the inmates’ bodies at gunpoint, deputies zip-tied their hands and escorted them in groups, naked and barefoot, through long hallways with dirty floors for another search using a body scanner. Some were not given their clothes back for several hours.
The allegations come from a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of at least 100 inmates who, their attorneys say, endured intrusive, unconstitutional searches during a lockdown at the downtown Los Angeles jail in September.
News reports from that day said the lockdown was triggered by a report of a man with a gun inside the facility. It’s unclear whether a weapon was ever found.
“There’s so much we just don’t know about what happened that day,” said Lindsay Battles, an attorney representing the inmates.
“We just know they did these really outrageous searches.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment on the allegations or explain what prompted the lockdown.
The lawsuit, filed in May, includes a detailed account by two named plaintiffs — Sammy Newman and Antonio Rincon — of what happened on Sept. 7.
Various housing units inside the jail facility were impacted by the lockdown, the lawsuit claims. Some men were locked in their cells when jail officials put the lockdown in place, while others were on the facility’s yard, which meant they had already undergone a visual body cavity search earlier in the day.
For those in their cells, deputies carrying guns ordered them to exit individually or in groups of two to five at a time, either completely naked or wearing only boxers and shower shoes, the lawsuit says.
They then endured a “terrifying and highly-intrusive” group visual body cavity search that involved squatting and coughing at gunpoint.
Deputies then handcuffed the inmates using zipties, requiring them to remain naked, even though they had determined they did not have weapons or contraband, according to the lawsuit.
The inmates were taken to body scanners in front of both male and female deputies, some of whom were not involved in the search. On the way, deputies prodded the men with their guns, spit on them and made offensive remarks about their bodies, the lawsuit alleges.
Inmates in the yard were subjected to similar treatment, even though they had already undergone searches, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit alleges that deputies violated the inmates’ 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.
“Once jail staff determined that each prisoner was free of weapons and contraband, and thus presented no safety concern, there remained no sufficient security interest to justify the exposure of prisoners’ genitalia to other persons,” the lawsuit says.
In a letter sent recently to The Times, an inmate, Kenneth Johns, wrote that he and others were forced to walk naked about half a mile, down an escalator to the body scanning machine, and then forced to sit on dirty benches. He said deputies made comments about getting hazard pay for the work.
“Oh and the incident happen approximately at 1500 hours and had us naked until 0130 the next morning,” wrote Johns, 60, who, records show, was convicted of murder in 2018. “Let me remind you we had no lunch or dinner and they realize that they hadn’t feed us and brought us 2 burritos at approximately 0100 hours on 98-21.”
In 2019, Los Angeles County agreed to pay $53 million, the largest settlement payout on record in county history, to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by the same law firm over search practices at the Sheriff’s Department’s women’s jail.
A judge found the invasiveness of the strip searches at the Century Regional Detention Facility — the women had to expose their genitals in large groups, without any privacy — violated their 4th Amendment rights.
The county did not admit wrongdoing, but after the lawsuit, the jail began using body scanners and privacy curtains to conduct body cavity searches on women inmates.