WARREN — The commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections said women visiting at state prison facilities will not be required to remove their bras in order to pass through screening.
Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick responded Tuesday to complaints from some women to the news media that they were told by guards at the Maine State Prison that they had to remove their bras before they would be allowed to visit inmates, after the bras apparently set off metal detectors.
“That is unacceptable,” Fitzpatrick said of the actions reported to have occurred at the Maine State Prison in Warren.
He said he was unaware of the matter until he was contacted by members of the media last week. He said an attorney also told him on Friday that she had spoken to several women who reported being asked to remove their bras when the detectors were activated as they passed through screening at the prison.
In 2015, female attorneys visiting clients at the Cumberland County Jail in Portland lodged complaints when they were told by guards that they had to remove their underwire bras before they could meet with their clients. Sheriff Kevin Joyce later apologized, blaming a misinterpretation of a revised jail policy on metal detectors, which called for scanning visitors who trigger the metal detector with a wand.
The commissioner asked that any women who were subjected to that request at the state prison to contact him with information on when it occurred and which staff members at the prison gave them those instructions. Fitzpatrick said he would hold accountable any staff member who ordered women to remove undergarments to get through screening.
He said his office has yet to receive any such complaints.
“I have told the wardens of each facility that if this is going on that it cease and desist,” Fitzpatrick said.
Safety in the prison is a top priority, but that it can be achieved without such an intrusive action, he said.
Currently, there are metal detectors at the prisons to make sure that weapons are not brought inside. If someone sets off a detector, staff members are supposed to use a metal-detecting wand to determine what is causing the alarm.
Fitzgerald said that if a wand still sounds for no obvious reason, staff should just supervise the visitor more closely. He said he would not support frisking visitors.
“I have a problem with us putting our hands on the public,” he said.
He said his goal is a middle ground that ensures safety but minimizes touching visitors.
Two body scanners that were purchased before Fitzgerald was named commissioner can show items under clothing without the person having to disrobe. The scanners have gone unused because of a misplaced fear they might expose people to excessive radiation, Fitzpatrick said. One of the devices is at the Maine State Prison and the other is at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, he said.
The commissioner said experts have assured the department that the scanners are safe, and he may decide to deploy them now.
Department officials have reached out to corrections departments in other states and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine for advice on appropriate screening protocols for prison visitors.