In March 2011, a tactical team of guards at a state prison in Lincoln, Illinois gathered 200 women and ushered them into a gymnasium, where they were brought in small groups into a separate room nearby. Inside that room, they were told to strip naked in plain view of other guards, cadets, and civilians, without any explanation. Women on their periods were ordered to remove their tampons and sanitary pads. One-by-one, each woman was ordered to lift her breasts, cough and squat, and display her vaginal and anal cavities. Those who refused were threatened with punishment. In total, the ordeal lasted nearly four hours.

When used by combatants in war and armed conflict, these tactics are a strategy used to assert control and instill fear in communities. In this case, the mass strip search was purportedly carried out as part of a cadet training exercise, meaning that the women were subjected to this humiliating violation without even the pretext of an immediate safety need.

Being forced to strip naked or expose oneself to others would traumatize anyone. But for most incarcerated women, that trauma can be even more severe because so many are survivors of and witnesses to abuse and violence. In Illinois alone, one report found that that 75% of women in prison had histories of sexual abuse and 98% had histories of physical abuse. Studies show that when survivors are revictimized, the harm to their emotional and mental health is greater than that to others. Practices like these perpetuate the devaluation and compound trauma that most women behind bars are already dealing with.

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