Philadelphia has agreed to pay $5.9 million to settle a class-action lawsuit involving thousands of strip searches by city prison guards between 2003 and 2007, the latest payout in a long list of such suits across the region.
The settlement, filed in federal court here last month, provides for payments of roughly $600 to $900 a person to those strip-searched after being jailed for misdemeanors, traffic violations, or other minor crimes.
Until 2007, Philadelphia's six prisons strip-searched all new inmates, even people held overnight when they lacked money for bail.
The search typically included visual "cavity searches," requiring suspects to squat and bend over while guards looked.
Across the country, plaintiffs' lawyers are winning multimillion-dollar class-action suits against the practice. In the last two years, four South Jersey counties have agreed to pay more than $14 million in settlements, and Dauphin County, Pa., recently agreed to a $2 million settlement.
Craig Straw of the city Law Department's civil rights division acknowledged no wrongdoing on the part of the city but said it was a good settlement. Straw said city officials thought that the policy of stripping everyone was important to maintain security in the jails, but "found a lot of courts weren't agreeing with that reasoning."
The city initially thought that as many as 47,000 people might have qualified for the payments, he said, but that was "knocked down to 38,000."
Daniel C. Levin, a member of the legal team that filed the suit, said, "We were pleased with the results."
The lawsuit, filed in 2005, helped change Philadelphia prison policies on strip searches.
Two years after the filing, Philadelphia dramatically reduced the number of people being stripped. Those arrested on drug or weapons charges still can be strip- searched. But for most minor offenses, city prisons now use metal scanners and mechanical drug sniffers to check for hidden contraband.
Outside Philadelphia, a 2007 Inquirer investigation found a wide disparity in the practice, with some areas rarely strip-searching, and others stripping everyone entering their jails.
The newspaper found that people accused of no serious crimes were being forced to remove their clothing and submit to invasive searches despite repeated rulings by state and federal courts that blanket strip-searching was unconstitutional.
In the Philadelphia suit, the two main plaintiffs were George L. Byrd of Sewell, Gloucester County, and Nakisha Boone of Philadelphia. They are to get $15,000 each.
Byrd, 52, a former Philadelphia school teacher, was on his way home from a party in 2005 when he was charged with drunken driving.
Byrd, who taught music for 22 years at University City High School and FitzSimons Middle School, told The Inquirer that he stopped his van beside the road in the Germantown section of the city and went to sleep. Police found him in the van and asked him to take a Breathalyzer test, which he refused.
After he was arrested, he was unable to post $2,500 bail. He then was taken to the Corrections Department jail on State Road and stripped. He was bailed out the next day, and, after a trial, found not guilty.
Byrd said he was terrified during the search. Afterward, he said, he went to a prison cell and cried.
The settlement does not allow for payments to people who were stripped after they were arrested for violent crimes or for drug or weapons offenses.
But $400,000 is set aside for people arrested for minor crimes but stripped because they had old convictions for felonies that did not involve drugs or weapons. Those people may receive up to $100 each.
The $5.9 million does not include attorneys' fees, which still must be approved by the court. The lawyers are expected to ask for about $2 million.
In addition to the Philadelphia settlement, Lancaster and Chester Counties are being sued, as is Delaware County's former prison operator, Geo Group Inc.
In the Geo Group case, Senior U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois ruled in March that prisons cannot routinely strip nonviolent arrestees who are not involved in drug cases unless there is reason to believe they are hiding contraband.
New Jersey has been hit particularly hard by the lawsuits.
Washington lawyer Charles LaDuca, who was involved in the Philadelphia case, won a $7.5 million settlement in Camden County. LaDuca also quarterbacked suits that won a $4.5 agreement in Cumberland County, a $1.8 million settlement in Mercer County, and a $640,000 agreement in Salem County. He is involved in suits in Atlantic and Union Counties as well.
Suits are pending against the Ocean and Burlington Counties jails by other lawyers.
Often without going to trial, lawyers have won huge settlements in California, New Mexico, New York, and Florida.
There is no national standard on strip searches.
Several federal circuit courts have ruled that blanket strip searches are unconstitutional, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit recently disagreed in a case involving a prison in Fulton County, Ga.
For More Information
As part of the settlement, there is a Web site with details of the case: www.philadelphiastripsearch.com