Note: This story was originally published in February 2023.

Rochelle Inselman had just returned to the Shakopee women's prison from Methodist Hospital, where she had undergone a hysterectomy and pelvic repair, when guards did their routine check to see if she was harboring contraband in her body. They ordered the inmate to strip, squat and cough.

"It hurt. It hurt real bad," she said, recalling the April 2021 incident. Nothing was found, and she was bandaged and put on strong pain medication.

Inselman, 49, who is doing time for murdering her ex-boyfriend in 2012 and isn't expected to be released for another 15 years, is among the women prisoners at Shakopee appealing for an end to invasive strip searches. For Inselman, the pain was physical; for many others, strip searches cause considerable psychological harm.

Their complaints, echoed by women's advocates and prison reformers, have led the Minnesota Department of Corrections to begin cutting the number of strip searches and turn toward more use of an electronic body scanner similar to those at airports.

"We want to minimize use of body searches and maximize the use of technology," Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said in an interview. "We want to reduce them. We want to reduce the risk of further traumatizing people."

David Boehnke, of the local chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a prison reform group, noted that another corrections official has called strip searches "a fact of life." The body scan machine at Shakopee was purchased three years ago, he said, but until recently had mostly sat idle.

"Is it real or is it lip service?" Boehnke said, referring to Schnell's comments.

Schnell last month told a department task force that in December, Shakopee prison authorities conducted 242 body searches and 287 searches using the body scanner. Scanning was used on inmates after they had received visitors.

"There is a place for body searches," Schnell told the Star Tribune. "They're in a security environment. They're never going to entirely go away."

Artika Roller, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said body scanning "is the best practice, less invasive, less traumatizing and less degrading." She said the Corrections Department has been slow to use body scans instead of strip searches.

Said Inselman: "I think it's ridiculous — not using a body scanner when it's there."

Schnell said it's taken time to get the scanning machine up and running. The department had to wait until the Legislature approved rules governing its use, because of x-ray radiation, he said. It's also taken time to train staffers on how to read the body scan images.

The Corrections Department has purchased four body scanners for the men's prisons, where strip searches are also conducted. Schnell said prison officials are studying how many machines it may need to do more body scans at the Shakopee prison.

Schnell acknowledged the stress that strip searches can cause women prisoners, noting how uncomfortable it can be for people to undress, even in a doctor's office.

Calls for reform

Minnesota is not alone in grappling with the issue of strip searches. The invasive nature of the procedure has sparked periodic calls for reform in several American cities and states as well as around the world.

Many women inmates, in Shakopee and other prison facilities, were victims of sexual assault before they were incarcerated. They say strip searches are often stark reminders of those horrific experiences.

"It's rare that [prison staff] do them in a way that is dignified, and they tend to be fairly traumatizing," said Brenda V. Smith, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and an expert on strip searches.

Smith said she recognizes that prisons have an interest in maintaining safety. But she said most contraband is brought into prisons by staff or visitors, not smuggled in the body cavities of inmates.

Strip searches are "overdone," said Laurissa Wredberg, a Twin Cities-based victim services advocate who worked for the Corrections Department until last fall. "If someone leaves and goes to a hospital and they have to be in the presence of a guard the whole time, why do you need to be searched when you return?"

The Michigan Department of Corrections stopped using one invasive strip search procedure at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in 2012, after a coalition of organizations led by the American Civil Liberties Union demanded it end.

The United Nations' Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice has declared that "intrusive searches, including strip and body cavity searches, should be undertaken only if absolutely necessary," and then only in private and by staffers of the same gender. The commission says prison officials should develop and use appropriate alternatives.

Feeling powerless

Some Shakopee prisoners told the Star Tribune that strip searches are so stressful that they have canceled medical appointments outside the prison rather than face a search when they return. When strip searches were routinely done after they received visitors, inmates sometimes told family and friends not to visit so they wouldn't have to go through it.

Shantha Jayapathy, 63, who has been imprisoned in Shakopee since 2018 for possession of methamphetamine, said she is a rape survivor and hates being strip searched. She said guards make her lift her breasts, search her long hair and make her squat and cough to see if anything is expelled.

Women officers conduct the search, she said, but the cell door is open and there may be men outside.

"It instills that fear in me in how powerless I am and how much control somebody has over everything about me," said Jayapathy, who is scheduled to be released later this year.

Natalie Pollard, 41, who was released from Shakopee four years ago after her second-degree murder conviction was reduced to manslaughter, said she underwent a strip search when she returned to prison following the birth of her son in 2016. She was still bleeding from the birth, she said, but two women guards still had her remove all her clothes.

"They had me squat down as far as I could and cough just after giving birth," Pollard said. One of the guards started gagging, and the other gave Pollard paper towels to clean herself up. "I knew it was something I never wanted to experience again," she said.

Anna Vanderford, 52, was convicted of murdering a boyfriend in 1988. Vanderford has since taken the name Zhi Gai and is transitioning from a woman to a man.

"I am embarrassed, as an older person, stripped naked with a body I didn't ask for and is a work in progress," they said. "I feel like they are gawking at me."

Jayapathy recalled a lockdown last June when all prisoners were ordered to undergo strip searches. Corrections officers were searching for drugs, but she said she wasn't searched until two days had passed.

"In two days, whatever contraband anyone would have had would have disappeared," she said. "Why are they strip searching everybody? It is a show of domination. It is a reminder of how little control you have over yourself. It is a very useful tool to humiliate us into submission."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to a prisoner. The quote and prisoner's name have since been removed.