- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 11, 2009

HAGERSTOWN, Md. | Eight people who worked at a state prison near Hagerstown are suing Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services officials for what they claim were illegal strip searches by co-workers last year in a vain search for drugs.

The lawsuit filed Monday in Washington County Circuit Court seeks $40 million as compensation for the “sexually intrusive, humiliating” episode Aug. 12 at the medium-security Maryland Correctional Training Center(MCTC).

The five men and three women were subjected to cavity searches after a drug-sniffing machine signaled the presence of illegal substances, according to the complaint. The lawsuit claims the workers also made inappropriate comments.

They claim the searches violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure, and the 14th Amendment guarantee of due-process rights.

Agency spokesman Rick Binetti said the department doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits. He said the agency has suspended its use of the drug-sniffing machines and changed its policy to require theDivision of Correction commissioner’s approval for strip-searching staff members.

The agency is pursuing a policy change that would allow only the department secretary to approve staff strip-searches, Mr. Binettti said.

Secretary Gary D. Maynard acknowledged two weeks after the August incident that the searches were “hastily organized” and “fell short” of previous attempts to intercept contraband.

Despite Mr. Maynard’s promise that it wouldn’t happen again, three female correctional officers at the Eastern Correctional Institution near Westover were strip-searched two months later without approval from either Mr. Maynard or Commissioner J. Michael Stouffer. The agency said those searches, which didn’t find anything, were prompted by intelligence gathered by security workers, not the machine readings.

Mr. Binetti wouldn’t say whether any MCTC workers have been disciplined, citing agency personnel rules. He said none have been fired. Other possible actions range from unpaid leave to written reprimands.

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Robert D. Schulte, of Baltimore, said his clients want accountability.

“It was just an obviously very unpleasant thing for these folks,” Mr. Schulte said. “They were all guilty of nothing.”

Mr. Maynard said in August that the IONSCAN machines, made by Smiths Group PLC of Watford, England, had been used successfully months earlier in the agency’s Baltimore prisons. He said a recent series of drug seizures and inmate overdoses, including one fatality, had compromised the safety of MCTC staff and inmates.

The lawsuit, first reported Thursday in the Baltimore Sun, says the machine used at MCTC was malfunctioning and was operated incorrectly by people ill-trained in its use.

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