About three weeks ago American authorities in Afghanistan cut off funding for the country’s largest prison, a 7,000-convict shop of terror near Kabul called Pul-e-Charki.
The State Department had tried to use its influence with Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry to stop prison guards from strip- and vaginal-searching all female visitors, while admitting men with mere pat downs. But in Afghanistan, American influence now resembles the proverbial naked emperor. It failed.
Too bad the struggle for civility is having no greater success at home, where this week the U.S. Supreme Court pulled a Pule-e-Charki on American law.
The court’s five most conservative justices ruled it’s legal to strip-search any of the 13 million people a year booked into American jails, no matter whether they bounced a check or killed someone, whether contraband is suspected or not, or whether the suspect is male or female.
The ruling came in the case of Albert Florence, a black man, who was a passenger in his wife’s BMW when she was pulled over for speeding in 2005. The trooper checked Florence’s record, too, and found an outstanding warrant for an unpaid fine.
The warrant was a mistake, as it turns out. The fine had, in fact, been paid. But New Jersey authorities didn’t clear the mistake until after Florence had been in jail for a week, strip-searched twice, forced to move his genitals, squat, cough and perform other acts reprehensible to anyone, let alone an innocent man.
Florence’s case is no exception. A nun of 50 years was strip-searched after her arrest for trespassing during an anti-war demonstration. Victims of sexual violence were strip-searched. So were women lactating or menstruating. So were individuals detained, as Justice Stephen Breyer specifies in his dissent, “for such infractions as driving with a noisy muffler, driving with an inoperable headlight, failing to use a turn signal, or riding a bicycle without an audible bell.” For them, the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches proved meaningless.
This is happening in the United States, not the dungeons of the Middle East.
The Supreme Court’s decision gives license to prison guards to act like goons. Sure, there is some difference with the Afghan prison, where visiting women are targets, not actual prisoners. But the violated principle is the same. In Breyer’s words: It’s “a serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy.”
The ruling is not supported by necessity, precedent or convention. Absent probable cause, at least 10 states, including Florida, forbid strip-searching. So do the federal government and international human rights conventions. With good reason.
A study cited in the case notes that in a New York jail, using less invasive searches, contraband slipped by authorities only once, out of 23,000 people admitted.
There will always be exceptions. But American justice isn’t calibrated to the malice of the few at the expense of the many. Quite the contrary. The assumption of innocence until proven guilty should apply universally, especially in local jails, where only a fraction of the millions of people booked every year are convicted of serious or violent offenses.
None of this—not the evidence, not the principle, not the immorality—swayed the bare majority of five justices in a decision that blights American justice and further degrades a brutal and overpopulated penal system.
In our prisons, Afghanistan is no metaphor.
Pierre Tristam is editor and publisher of FlaglerLive.com, a non-profit news service based in Palm Coast, Fl.
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