Government & Politics

Protestors oppose jail screening that forces female attorneys to remove bra

Chanting “We need support!” and carrying signs like “My underwire bra is no threat and neither am I,” about 75 female attorneys and supporters, took to the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse Wednesday to assail a new security policy that prevents them from meeting face-to-face with clients in the county jail on days when they are wearing underwire bras.

They set off the metal detector, and the jail makes no allowances for that.

Their choice, women lawyers say, is to either remove their bras, or have non-contact visits with their clients, via phone and separated by a window, which they call discriminatory because male attorneys are not affected.

Attorneys Laurie Snell and Molly Hastings, two of the organizers, said they were in disbelief that they were talking about their bras in public.

“It’s almost like, what century are we in?” Snell said. “The policy needs to change. “It’s sexist, it’s unnecessary and we’re begging them to work with us to find another way to let us in and let us see our clients and still keep the jail safe.”

But after a 90-minute meeting with county legislators later in the afternoon, the two sides were no closer to finding a solution that would ensure jail security without requiring a wardrobe change by female defense lawyers.

“It disturbs me just a little bit that it doesn’t appear that the sheriff’s office is interested in any compromise, period,” legislator Charlie Franklin said.

Not entirely true, says Sheriff Darryl Forte’, who runs the jail in downtown Kansas City. While maintaining a hard-line stance, he accepted legislators’ suggestion that he meet privately with the protesters to try a solution before someone in the jail files a costly lawsuit alleging that their rights were violated because their female attorney was denied access over her underwear.

“I’m willing to discuss what we can do,” he later told a reporter.

Jail officials say the rule is justified because bras can hold sharp objects and other dangerous contraband, and the metal detectors can’t discern the difference between a knife and a bra’s support wire. Other public buildings have screening systems that make accomodations for that.

But Forte’ and corrections director Diana Turner have been unwilling to adapt their screening policy so that women who trip the metal detector could be “wanded” and then patted down in order to clear security. The attorneys say they would be open to such a system.

The protest, originally planned for outside the Jackson County Detention Center, was moved to the courthouse after jail officials said they would lock down the facility because the demonstration might pose a security threat.

“Out of respect to (our clients), which this is about, we moved the protest in front of the courthouse,” Hastings said.

Seventy four defense attorneys signed a letter protesting the screening systems last week. The letter said the systems are denying jail inmates “meaningful access” to legal representation. Attorneys say they need to hand their clients legal papers and say it’s impossible to have confidential discussions over the phone system, which records those calls.

A jail official said late Wednesday that attorney-client calls are not recorded.

“We’re not the problem,” Snell said. “We want safety. We want security. But it can easily be safe and secure with us going in there to see our clients without the implementation that they’re proposing.”

The attorneys say no other county jail in Kansas or Missouri has such a strict policy, and neither are underwire bras an issue at prisons in either state, with the exception of the Potosi Correctional Center, where Missouri houses death row inmates.

Forte’ and Turner have refused to budge and say the policy they implemented last month protects employees, inmates and everyone else who enters the secure area of the facility.

“We’re not going to change our security policy because we care about our people,” Forte’ said.

Although the meeting ended without a resolution, Forte’ said he was agreeable to meeting with the attorneys, which some legislators suggested might best be done with the help of a professional mediator.

As the overflow crowd at the legislative chambers began to thin, the sheriff exchanged business cards with Hastings and Carie Allen, an assistant federal public defender.

They’re hoping for best.

“I’ve texted and emailed him, and I’m waiting to hear back,” Allen said.

This story has been updated to include an account of the county legislators’ meeting.