Los Angeles County has agreed to its largest-ever largest payout — $53 million — to settle a 2010 class-action lawsuit over strip search practices of prisoners at the Sheriff’s Department’s Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood.
As part of an agreement filed Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by attorneys on behalf of plaintiff Mary Amador and others against then-LA County Sheriff Lee Baca and others, more than 93,000 women incarcerated and strip-searched at the jail between March 2008 and January 2015 will be eligible to collect a share of the settlement if the court approves it, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Judge Stephen V. Wilson will consider the settlement at a preliminary approval hearing in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California on Aug. 12.
“If the Settlement receives preliminary approval, notices will be sent to Class Members and the website will be updated with additional details on how to participate in the Settlement,” according to the Amador v. Baca Outreach website.
Strip searches with visual body-cavity inspections were routine at the jail until late 2014 when jailers began using scanners to search inmates.
According to court documents, strip searches were conducted in groups of 20 to 60 women, sometimes more.
“Inmates could not avoid seeing each others’ bare bodies,” read one plaintiff’s statement. “They could see pubic area, stretch marks, breasts missing from mastectomies, surgery scars and tattoos.”
The suit included statements from numerous other women alleging that during group strip searches, deputies made profane and degrading comments about the inmates’ weight, body odor, pubic hair and other parts of the anatomy.
In the agreement, LA County admitted no wrongdoing but said it settled to avoid continued litigation. In addition to now using scanners for 98% of inmate searches, the county will also spend $3 million to hire outside consultants to advise on ways the jails can further improve jail policies and practices for women inmates.
A statement issued by the county on the proposed settlement follows:
“This proposed $53 million class action settlement represents a significant resolution of a deeply troubling period in which tens of thousands of women were strip-searched—with intrusive methods and inadequate privacy—while they were inmates in the Los Angeles County jail system from March 2008 through January 2015.
“The County is profoundly concerned about the practices that gave rise to this lawsuit, and is committed to making sure that reforms instituted by the Sheriff’s Department since 2016 will continue to build a culture that prioritizes safety, dignity and respect for inmates and staff.
“The $53 million, which includes all attorneys’ fees and costs, will be paid into a claims fund, with $3 million allocated for contracts with the Moss Group and the Center for Gender and Justice to provide assessment, training and services to further gender-responsive programming and practices.
“The County wants to ensure that all women who were strip-searched while in custody from March 2008 through January 2015 have an opportunity to come forward and request compensation from the claims fund. Following court approval of the settlement, a class notice will be posted on the Sheriff’s Department website, and a special website will be established to provide specific information on filing a claim.
“The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department halted the practice of routinely strip-searching female inmates in April 2016, when it began using body scanners as its primary screening method. Today, 98% of female inmates are screened using body scanners.
“We hope that this settlement will help bring healing and closure to the women affected by past practices, even as it underscores our determination to continue on the path of justice system reform.”
Separately, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva issued a statement Thursday afternoon:
“The Board of Supervisors and their lawyers are desperately trying to persuade public opinion by improperly releasing allegations to their source at the LA Times while the case is still in court. We eagerly look forward to sharing the facts in the courtroom.”
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