By Dinky Manek Enty
For the more than 2.7 million children in the United States with an incarcerated parent, the holiday season brings a poignant mixture of torment and joy. On the one hand, it may mean a rare opportunity to visit a parent behind bars—for some, the only visit of the year. But the love and connection a visit can bring are tempered by the fear of driving past razor wire, passing through metal detectors, and being subjected to the scrutiny of uniformed guards.
This holiday season, some children may face an even more disturbing intrusion. Under new regulations recently proposed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), visitors will be subjected to canine searches in an effort to prevent the flow of contraband such as drugs and cell phones into the state’s prisons. Should the search result in a positive alert (even a false positive, which research has shown comprise as many as 80 percent of all positive identifications), the visitor in question must submit to a strip search or else forgo the visit. The regulations make no exception for children, and existing CDCR paperwork regarding unclothed searches explicitly includes accompanying minors.
Can you imagine the trauma a four-year old, or a 14-year-old, will experience, standing naked for inspection by uniformed strangers? What if it were your child subjected to this shock and humiliation in order to see you? What would you choose?
The canine search regulations were developed in an attempt to reduce the flow of illegal drugs and cell phones into the state’s prisons. Contraband is a legitimate concern, but not so grave that it calls for such outrageous and invasive procedures. In many instances, guards and other prison personnel have been found responsible for introducing contraband into correctional facilities, yet these regulations discriminate against visitors. The protocols require visitors, no matter how young, to submit to degrading strip searches while allowing personnel who are flagged by the dogs to get by with a fully clothed pat down by a fellow guard.
Children attempting to visit with their parent in any of California’s 35 adult correctional institutions are already subject to inspection, but the proposed canine searches will impose an added level of shock. For children who are already afraid of dogs or large animals, the presence of drug dogs will be terrifying, not to mention the serious health problems it may create for those with dog allergies. Lizzy, 15, a member of Project WHAT! which supports young people experiencing parental incarceration in making their voices heard said “I’m scared of dogs. It makes me not want to visit my father.”
“You tell me when it became legal to see a naked child?” Lizzy asked heatedly. “I’m already traumatized by the gates and the guards. If I fail the test, I will be stripped? This is so dehumanizing. It will traumatize me for life.”
Distressing events during childhood make children more vulnerable to poor life outcomes such as depression, dropping out of school, or criminal justice involvement. In addition, requiring children to allow unknown but authoritative adults to inspect their naked bodies risks normalizing a horrifying experience, potentially leaving a child more susceptible to sexual abuse in the future.
If a visitor refuses to be stripped, she is automatically denied a contact visit that day, though a non-contact visit through a glass partition might be made available. Refusing a strip search several times can lead to a visitor being banned for a full year. The damage this will cause to a youth’s rapidly developing sense of self is immeasurable. Young children need to be able to hug and kiss their parents.
Positive family relationships support a child’s healthy development. These regulations will deter family connections and thwart a child’s natural desire to connect with her parents. The searches are frightening for children and discourage family visiting. Parents might choose to protect their children from being exposed to the risk of a strip search by discontinuing visits altogether, further alienating children and families. The regulations’ impact on children wanting to visit their parent is too severe. We cannot condemn children to such inhumane treatment, dissuading their natural instinct to be nurtured. As a society, when did we decide to punish and humiliate children for the transgressions of their parents?
The CDCR must eliminate the proposed canine search regulations in favor of child safety. If these regulations are enacted, generations of children will be traumatized. Children must never be strip searched and only in the rare instance when immediate safety demands a search should a minor be patted down, following the same standards set forth for staff. The CDCR says they want a safer California, but these regulations criminalize visitation in exchange for child safety.
Dinky Manek Enty is the Deputy Director for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ).