DETROIT – Linda Rose (search) says she spent three hours crouched in the corner of a concrete cell at the Saginaw County Jail (search), shivering and sobbing, after deputies stripped her of her clothes and left her naked in front of a surveillance camera.
"They don't need to strip you of your clothes and your dignity," said Rose, who was arrested in 2001 for drunken driving.
The claim by the 36-year-old bartender is one of dozens of accounts of humiliating treatment that have emerged as part of a lawsuit against the county.
A federal judge has ruled that the practice of holding inmates naked is unconstitutional. The question before the court now is how much the plaintiffs are entitled to in damages, and how extensive the practice was.
The county has acknowledged that it held some inmates naked — including Rose and all 21 of the other plaintiffs — from 1996 through 2001. The county says that the practice was aimed at preventing distraught prisoners from using their clothing to hang themselves, and that it was discontinued in 2001.
But the plaintiffs' attorneys, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union (search) of Michigan, say the practice has continued and has probably been applied to more than 200 people, some of whom claim they were held naked for days on end. The FBI has launched its own investigation.
Jails and prisons often hold people without clothes or issue them paper gowns if they are deemed suicidal. Around the country, people have sued over the practice.
In a class-action lawsuit against the San Francisco County Jail, hundreds of people say they were left naked in isolation for extended periods. In Iowa, a woman was awarded $2,500 after a federal jury found her privacy had been violated in 1996 when jail guards strapped her naked in spread-eagle fashion to a restraining board.
In Saginaw, inmates placed in an isolation cell because of threatening or disruptive behavior automatically were forced to strip, regardless of whether guards believed the person might attempt suicide. Such a blanket policy of naked detention for troublemakers is highly unusual, said Richard Tewksbury, a corrections expert at the University of Louisville.
Sheriff Charles Brown, who oversees the jail about 85 miles northwest of Detroit, said the naked detention was aimed only at protecting inmates and staff. The jail adopted the policy after a prisoner hanged himself in an isolation cell in 1996, Brown said.
He said the county changed the policy in 2001 after the lawsuit was filed, and now gives paper gowns to inmates in isolation.
But in a request for class-action status filed late last month, the plaintiffs' lawyers alleged 91 additional claims of mistreatment, including instances when people were held naked without gowns as recently as this year.
The lawyers also take issue with the gowns themselves, calling them flimsy and inadequate. And they say guards used excessive force to remove inmates' clothes, in one instance hog-tying a man. The sheriff vehemently denies the new allegations.
Plaintiffs' attorney Christopher Pianto said the policy of taking away inmates' clothes is not about safety, but about punishment by humiliation and discomfort.
In January, U.S. District Judge David Lawson in Bay City ruled that holding detainees without any covering is unconstitutional. A jury will decide on damages. The plaintiffs have not requested a specific amount.
Jail records show Rose was put in isolation after she began pounding and kicking on a cell door. Rose said she had only been trying to get the officers' attention so that she could make a phone call.
She said the officers pushed her to the ground and pulled her clothes off. Rose said she heard both men's and women's voices around her, meaning she was probably observed by male, as well as female, officers. She ultimately pleaded guilty to the drunken driving charge.
The sheriff said many inmates come in drunk or on drugs, and their behavior can be unpredictable.
"I wish I lived in a utopia and everyone that came in here ... all acted within the rules," he said. "But they don't, and, unfortunately, those people create a safety issue within the jail."