Rikers' detainees allege illegal strip searches during court trips

By Olivia Weaving July 31, 2023

This report highlights class action lawsuits against the Manhattan criminal courthouses' alleged routine and unlawful strip searches of detainees post extensive searches at Rikers Island jails.

Class action lawsuits have been filed, accusing officers of unconstitutionally strip-searching detainees in Manhattan's criminal courthouses. It is alleged that these searches were conducted post a complete search at the detainee’s corresponding jail on Rikers Island.

The lawsuits suggest that hundreds of incarcerates were made to undergo purportedly illicit strip searches in narrow quarters and even hallways within the Manhattan judiciary complex since October of previous year. Astoundingly, these degrading checks apparently went ahead even though the detainees had been subjected to thorough security screening procedures, inclusive of metal detectors and body scanners, pat-down frisks, and intrusive cavity searches at Rikers Island, before making their court appearances.

These lawsuits highlight some alarming narratives. One example is that of the 55-year-old New Jersey resident, Anthony Johnson. His deposition describes his distressing ordeal of consecutive searches at his Rikers Island jail before being transported to the courthouses for further humiliation.

His unsettling account of the procedure includes being crammed into a pen before being ushered into a diminutive, unhygienic space where privacy was a distant luxury. He recollects being taken aback by the officers cryptically calling for “two at a time,” not knowing what unpleasantries were about to follow.

Darren Seilback, Johnson's representative and counsel for over 400 active and former detainees, unequivocally stated the illegality of such strip-searching practice. Seilback, of the law firm Oddo and Babat, was emphatic that there is no lawful rationale that justifies this humiliating and dehumanizing treatment of detainees.

The lawsuit unveils other discomforting stories too. Among them is that of the late William Johnstone, who revealed being strip-searched in front of other detainees and under the watchful eyes of surveillance cameras. Further grim revelations include Alim McCullough alleging strip searches on 17 occasions since October and Sean Cooper claiming similarly distressing experiences ten times over.

Disconcertingly, several plaintiffs reported crude remarks and threats of pepper spray assaults by the personnel conducting these procedures. For Johnson, a devout Muslim, the entire process was an affront to his religious beliefs and a source of profound disgrace.

In tandem with these lawsuits, former detainees Raymond Lewis and Frederick Ortiz have presented similar accusations. The 67-year old Lewis claimed feeling violated upon being strip searched during seven court appearances, despite undergoing extensive security checks at Rikers Island.

Interestingly but worryingly, the law firms in both cases indicate that these so-called secondary or additional searches are exclusive to the Manhattan courthouse and not implemented in the courts of the four other city boroughs.

Shayla Mulzac, speaking on behalf of the Correction Department, declined to comment given the litigation's ongoing status. The city's record on strip-search related settlements over the last 20 years eclipses an astonishing $95.5 million.