A federal jury awarded a Honolulu woman $7 million last year after she was illegally strip searched by a male deputy sheriff in a downtown cellblock. But jail reform advocates argue that case is just the tip of the iceberg for what has been happening to female inmates at the hands of male correctional officers.

University of Hawaii Student Stories project badge“For that to have happened means it must have happened more often,” Sen. Joy San Buenaventura said. “Most people do not want to speak up for fear of retaliation, especially for repeat offenders.”

Lawmakers are attempting to address the issue by making it against the law for male correctional facility employees to enter areas where female inmates are undressing. Senate Bill 2777 would also prohibit male guards from conducting pat downs or searches of female inmates, unless the prisoner presents a risk of immediate harm to herself or others.

Womens Community Correctional Center Hawaii prison razor wire barriers.
Lawmakers are moving to ban male jail guards from conducting searches of female inmates. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

The measure also would require the state Department of Public Safety to increase its recruitment, hiring and training of female adult corrections officers.

“It’s already demeaning being incarcerated and to be subjected to random demeaning types of strip searches by male employees, it’s like an added punishment,” San Buenaventura said.

Advocates for the bill have testified that incidents of sexual misconduct against female inmates are unreported, and that the state has a responsibility to protect its prisoners. However, the public safety department argued in its testimony to the Legislature that it already has in place stringent policies to address these issues, including hiring more staff. The department called the measure “unnecessary.”

SB 2777 recently cleared the House Corrections, Military and Veterans Committee. The House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee plans to hear the bill on Wednesday.

“I’m impressed that it seems to still be moving along because the house bill didn’t cross at all,” Sen. Roz Baker, who co-introduced SB 2777, said. “I’m hopeful.”

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