State

Underwire bra policy at Jackson Co. jail called humiliating, sexist in open letter

Six dozen criminal defense attorneys — both male and female — have signed a letter protesting a new security screening system that denies women lawyers access to the Jackson County jail when their bras trigger the metal detector.

In addition to calling the system discriminatory, the open letter sent Thursday says that Sheriff Darryl Forté’s unwillingness to make accommodations for female attorneys wearing underwire bras is also impacting the justice system by denying jail inmates “meaningful access” to legal representation. The letter was signed by 74 attorneys.

The vast majority of the hundreds of inmates at the Jackson County Detention Center are awaiting trial and meet regularly with their lawyers.

“The male attorneys in our group see our female counterparts as equals and feel this security protocol singles them out for disparate treatment and does not afford them the dignity and respect they deserve,” says the letter addressed to Forté, who runs the jail and sets its policies, as well as to Jackson County Executive Frank White and county officials.

Also Thursday, the county legislator who first brought these concerns to light accused Forté of seeking to retaliate against critics of the policy by trying to gain access to emails they sent her. She was incensed to learn Wednesday that Forté had filed a Sunshine Law request for those messages.

“Instead of adjusting the process so it works, the sheriff is seeking my emails from constituents with concerns about the process,” Crystal Williams said in a written statement. “It’s sad when a politician uses intimidation tactics toward people with valid concerns about a sexist policy. This sure looks like someone seeking retaliation. Just fix the damned problem.”

Asked for his response, Forté defended his attempt to gain access to the emails.

“In part, my goals are to educate the community about open records, as well as to ascertain facts about alleged comments,” he told The Star in a Twitter direct message. “Elected officials should welcome and encourage transparency, and not be offended by requests. Community awareness about the affairs of Jackson County government must be a goal of elected officials. Our community needs to be aware of the open records request process and use the process to obtain government records. The process is simple and could yield useful information.”

Forté and corrections department director Diana Turner instituted new screening procedures last month in an effort to keep weapons, cellphones and other contraband from getting into the hands of inmates.

Detention center employees and others who have direct physical contact with inmates in the jail’s secure areas are affected. All must pass through an X-ray machine and a metal detector. The union representing corrections officers complains that some female jail workers have been forced to buy new bras at considerable expense due to the change.

Attorneys, legal assistants and mental health workers have told The Star that they have been unable to get into the jail at times because their underwear set off the metal detector. Some have removed their bras before being screened, then put them on after being cleared.

While acknowledging the need for greater security at the jail, the open letter from defense attorneys said that the screening procedure as it is now implemented “is unreasonable and unnecessary.” The letter suggests that jail staff use a metal detecting wand to determine whether a woman’s bra is what is setting off the alarm.

The attorneys says they are owed that courtesy as officers of the court and said they knew of no other pre-trial holding facility in Missouri or Kansas where women wearing underwire bras are excluded in this way.

On Monday, Turner said that even with a wand, her employees wouldn’t be able to tell whether some other piece of metal, such as a knife, might be concealed in a bra and did not want her female officers having to check with a pat down.

Forté did not immediately respond to the letter, but in an answer to a question that The Star posed to him Thursday morning, he left open the possibility for a change in procedures without promising there would be any.

“Evaluation of policies and procedures related to the detention center is ongoing,” he said via Twitter. “We desire to continue to provide the best possible service with minimal inconvenience while maintaining high safety standards. Safety and security is of paramount importance to me.”

Should the policy not change by next week, defense attorneys will stage a protest at noon on Wednesday at the jail, attorney John Picerno said.

Also on Thursday, Turner sent jail employees a new directive saying that female attorneys with underwire bras could be issued a non-contact visitor badge and meet with their clients by talking to them via phone in a room where they are separated by a window.

Picerno called that arrangement “unacceptable,” because it would not allow lawyers to share court papers with their clients or show them video evidence associated with their cases

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Mike Hendricks is a member of The Star’s investigations and watchdog reporting team. Send tips and story ideas in confidence by email to mhendricks@kcstar.com, Twitter direct message @kcmikehendricks, or anonymously via Signal encrypted message at 816-234-4738
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