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Florida Update From the Inside: Prison Searches: Invading a Prisoner's Domain

David M. Reutter, June 15, 2021.

The Fourth Amendment secures the right of the people to be secure in their homes and property, for it prohibits unreasonable and warrantless searches and seizures. When you go to prison, that right goes out the window with your freedom. In the name of security, prisoners are subject to be strip searched and their “house” trashed upon a whim.

There are good reasons for this, but enduring it is another thing. Shakedowns have different flavors. There are the routine and mass searches.

Routine shakedowns usually consist of a quick pat down to assure the prisoner is not carrying any type of contraband. These regularly occur as a prisoner exits the chow hall or some other choke point. They also occur when the prisoner looks suspicious or when they are in an unauthorized area. Guards are also required to conduct so many cell or locker searches per day. Depending upon the guard, these usually are not too bad. They typically involve looking for obvious contraband to complete their log of searches. Every prisoner has some sort of contraband in their housing area.

The most invasive personal search a prisoner is subjected to is a strip search. They are routine any time a prisoner goes to visitation, are transferred, or are subject to a mass search.
Mass searches are an extreme invasion of a prisoner’s domain. In the last few months, I have been reminded of this fact. For the previous eight years, I was in a program dorm. We rarely were subjected to mass searches, and when we were it was a pretty light affair because we pretty much self-regulated, and if you were not complying with the rules you were removed from the program. Guards knew they weren’t worth their time but were requirements to go through the motions.

Six months ago, I elected to end my facilitation of a class in the program. About three months later, I was moved to the worst area on the compound. This area was subjected to regular mass searches. At one point, we were subjected to three in a ten-day period.

They start by guards coming in and ordering everyone to put their hands on their head. We then waited our turn to be escorted to the shower area for a strip search. Once everyone completed that process and was escorted outdoors, we were escorted to the recreation yard.
Guards then descended upon the dorm with dogs. Once they concluded their search, another group of guards began searching every nook and cranny of the area. Little respect is afforded to the sanctity and value of a prisoner’s property. I have a footlocker that is just less than three feet by three feet and about 24 inches high. All a prisoner’s personal property must fit into is space. That means prisoners have little property. What we do have is highly valued.

The last time I was subjected to a mass search, guards absolutely trashed it by removing everything and looking at it piece by piece. I returned the dorm three hours later to find my property was strewn about my bed, on the neighbor’s bed, and the rest was tossed into my locker. I lost a lot of little things, and most of it was contraband such as a highlighted, black marker, tape, paperclips, and a small piece of metal to use as a screwdriver to fix things like my glasses.
Lost also was some other property that was authorized. Amongst them was a pair of pajamas and a towel. Both were old and of colors no longer sold. Mine were grandfathered in under prison rules. Nonetheless, they were confiscated and thrown in the trash.

That act was a violation of the rules covering the confiscation of property. The rules require that a property receipt be issued anytime property is confiscated from a prisoner. During a mass shakedown, that rarely occurs.

We were told the last mass shakedown occurred was because someone had said they were going to injure a guard. The shakedown was in retaliation for that threat. The prior shakedowns were to find contraband, and find contraband they did. Amongst the booty were several cellphones and chargers. A small stash of drugs was found in a pair of shoes. Bags full of cardboard, plastic bottles, and other items were collected.

Shakedowns are an expected part of prison. Still, to have your few possessions rifled through with outright disrespect for the you or what it means to you is humbling and humiliating. It took me two hours to put my locker back together. Getting my pajamas and towel back is out of the question. I could only file a grievance, which has been denied at the first level. The incident was captured on video, so I may get to see it in the future if I push it to small claims court.

Why push such a thing? For one, the pajamas were the last item I owned that my deceased mother sent me. More importantly, the only rights we have are the ones we fight to preserve. Prisoners cannot stop shakedowns, but they can fight to preserve their right to not have their property confiscated and destroyed without due process.

For those who are still protected by the Fourth Amendment, be thankful that you’re protected from the tyranny of having your domain trashed at a whim.