Settlement of class action about male guards filming strip searches of female prisoners at the Chicopee Jail

We are pleased to report that last Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor granted preliminary approval of the settlement in our class action lawsuit about the policy at the women’s jail in Chicopee permitting male guards to videotape female prisoners being strip searched. The settlement requires the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center (“WCC”) to change its policy to prohibit male officers from filming strip searches except in an emergency. Defendants, Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe, and Patricia Murphy, head of the WCC, will pay $675,000 to settle the case. Any woman held at the WCC and videotaped by a male officer during a strip search since September 15, 2008, is a member of the class. The parties have identified 176 class members. Each class member who submits a claim form is expected to receive $1,000 or more.  

We were contacted by the lead Plaintiff, Debra Baggett, more than five years ago. Debra, who at the time was still a prisoner at the WCC, wrote that male guards routinely videotaped strip searches when women were taken to segregation (whether for disciplinary or mental health reasons). The firm receives many letters from prisoners describing many disturbing prison practices, but this one stood out. Suspending disbelief, we sent a public records request to Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe. We were shocked to learn that the WCC had a written policy permitting male guards to videotape strip searches of women prisoners in non-emergency situations. We had never heard of a policy permitting cross-gender videotaping. Nor had any of the prison experts we spoke to.

We wrote a letter to the Sheriff stating that the policy was unconstitutional and requesting that he change it. Because the policy so clearly violated the women’s privacy and dignity, and was so contrary to national correctional standards, we thought we would be able to resolve the case without a lawsuit. We did not ask for any money; Ms. Baggett and the other women we spoke to just wanted the policy changed. But the Sheriff refused to change the policy in a meaningful way, so we filed a lawsuit in September 2011.

The lawsuit has been hard-fought, requiring some 2,000 hours of the firm’s time. Defendants’ lawyers fought the case at every turn. By October 2014, Defendants Ashe and Murphy had paid $476,000 in attorney’s fees to the private law firm defending the case. (If it is ultimately approved, the settlement agreement provides for $475,000 in attorney’s fees to be paid to our office.) In August 2014, Judge Ponsor ruled that Defendants’ policy violated the Constitution. The Court found that “the degradingly vulnerable position the inmate is forcibly placed in” violated her privacy and “basic dignity.” The Court found that the policy served no legitimate purpose.

Defendants appealed the judge’s ruling. Finally, during a mediation in the federal appeals court last November, Defendants agreed to change the policy to prohibit males from videotaping female prisoners in non-emergency situations. The Settlement Agreement requires a formal change to the written policy and should effectively eliminate the practice. The Settlement Agreement requires payments to class members who file claims in the coming months. The minimum will be $850, though we expect this amount to be more than $1,000; the amount depends on how many class members file claims. The payments to class members, many of whom have histories of sexual abuse or suffer from mental illness, represent an acknowledgement of the harm inflicted by the finally eliminated policy. For information about the claims process, as well as a copy of the settlement agreement and the judge’s opinion ruling the policy unconstitutional, visit the class website at

For news coverage of the settlement, click here. For a blog post containing an unedited statement from our fantastic client, the brave and tenacious Debra Baggett, click here.

By David Milton                     

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