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Wayne County suit over female inmate strip searches becomes class action

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

A federal court judge in Detroit approved class action status Thursday for a lawsuit  filed by former female inmates at the Wayne County Jail who say they were abused and mistreated during group searches that sometimes included being stripped in front of men.

The ruling could affect about 16,000 female inmates who had been housed at the Wayne County Jail from November 2014 on, according to the women's attorney, Michael Dezsi.

U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow approved the motion brought by Dezsi seeking the class action status. The motion alleges that some female inmates were subjected to "demeaning, unsanitary, abusive and invasive group strip searches" while at the jail.

A spokeswoman for the Wayne County Sheriff's Office had no immediate response to the judge's decision.

The plaintiffs, Katrina Woodall, Katana Johnson, Kelly Davis, Joanie Williams, Latoya Hearst and Cynthia Whack-Finley brought the lawsuit in 2017 against Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, Wayne County Jail Cpl. Terri Graham and the county.

"Plaintiffs allege that they were made to strip in full view of male guards, officers, employees and inmates," according to the complaint. "Plaintiffs and other female inmates were 'forced to bend over   ... under the pretense of searching for contraband."

Woodall, 28, told The News Thursday she still gets emotional recalling her time at the jail, which stemmed from a bond issue from an assault case involving another woman.

Woodall said she was housed at the jail seven or eight times in 2013. She said she hopes attaining class-action status will bring justice to her and the other women.

"It's been 7 1 /2 years. It's been very long," she said. "It's been horrible for many years. I'm very thankful and happy the judge brought forth some justice." 

"Now is the time to pray," said Woodall. "What happens in the dark comes to light. Now is the time to seek justice."

Reacting to the judge's ruling, Dezsi said, "it's been a long time coming." 

"The women have been waiting for years in years to get the case  ... to this point," he said. "The women were basically waiting on the sideline. (They) are really anxious for this case to come to some sort of conclusion."

In the lawsuit, Woodall and her co-plaintiffs allege that jail guards "would routinely degrade and humiliate" them by crudely commenting on their appearance and sexuality "while comparing them to animals."

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

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