$400,000; MA Taxes Pay Court Fees For Male Guards Who Violated Female Inmates at Chicopee Jail

Our tax dollars at work defending Ashe and Murphy
By Lois Ahrens | The Real Cost of Prisons Project
After reading that in August, Judge Michael Ponsor ruled in favor  of Debra Baggett and the 178 women who comprise the class of plaintiffs suing Michael Ashe, Sheriff of the Hampden County and Patricia Murphy, Assistant  Superintendent of the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center (aka as the Chicopee jail for women), I wondered how much the legal defense of this despicable practice was costing.

Under the direction of Ashe and Murphy, male guards standing just a few feet away videotaped 274  women during strip and body cavity searches.  Some of the women were being placed in solitary for disciplinary infractions while others were going to solitary because they were suicidal. As part of the strip search, the women were  required to run her fingers through her hair, remove dentures if she wore them, raise both arms, lift her breasts, lift her stomach for visual inspection if she had a large mid-section, and remove any tampon or pad if she were menstruating. She was then required to turn around, bend over, spread her buttocks, and cough.

In a press release following Judge Ponsor’s decision, David Milton and Howard Freedman, lawyers for Baggett and the other women wrote,  “The court found that forcing women to strip naked and manipulate her body in the presence of a male guard videotaping was ‘clearly antithetical to human dignity’ and ‘deeply humiliating.'”  In his decision Ponsor stated, that the practice “is to ignore the inborn sense of privacy most human beings harbor from childhood through the end of life.”  Ponsor ruled that the practice is  “plainly unconstitutional” under the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable searches.

Judge Ponsor ruled that the Debra Baggett and the other plaintiffs are due monetary compensation. In September lawyers for Ashe and Murphy appealed.

In November, I sent a Public Records Request to the Sheriff’s office asking how much they had spent on lawyers fees to defend Ashe and Murphy. In a response from Therese Finnegan, Staff Attorney Hampden County Sheriff’s Department,  wrote that legal fees up until October 30, 2014 were $476,574.57. Of course the fees are still accumulating since they are appealing.

I then filed another Public Records Request asking who is paying their half million dollar plus legal bill. The answer is the attorney’s fees are being paid for by Hampden County Sheriff’s Department operating budget. That is, you and me. Massachusetts taxpayers have paid  both for the unconstitutional and degrading and humiliating practice and the legal fees to defend it.

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