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A shelf holds many sets of grey and white prison-issued clothing
Image by Jenn Vargas (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The feeling when you’re being directed to bend over at the waist, spread your ass cheeks and expose your anus is too awful for words. I undergo this dehumanizing performance after each and every visit with my family and friends, a humiliating end to a joyful occasion.

These cavity searches are by far the most demeaning act I experience in prison. This performance requires me to strip naked under the watchful eye of a prison guard; open my mouth, lift up my tongue, run my fingers over my gums, lift my testicles, squat, cough, then separate my buttocks to expose any items that may have been concealed in my rectal cavity.

I’ve heard people say, “Fuck them visits! I’d rather not see my family if it requires me to spread-eagle.”

My response is defensive: “You don’t love your family as much as I love mine.”

The truth of the matter is that I feel ashamed for not resisting the procedure. Deep down I know that the system has desensitized me. Lately, I find myself going through the progression without even being told what to do next.

For the last 15 years I’ve endured this.

In my way of thinking, I maintain a scintilla of dignity by going through the routine without prompts. I also hope that the officer is relieved that he doesn’t have to tell me to lift my nuts up. I would like to believe he doesn’t enjoy commanding me to perform this indecent act.

In a disembodied state of mind, I mechanically scurry through the steps. A few times, I was scolded by an officer for moving too fast. He regarded my quick movements as jumpiness, assumed I was smuggling something and searched more thoroughly. He failed to consider any other possible reason I might be rushing through this demoralizing act.

After discarding each piece of clothing, I pass them to the officer to be searched. 

I start by taking off my fresh, crispy sneakers; left foot, then right foot. The officer intentionally bends my brand new sneakers up so far that the toe touches the heels. This gives them a stale makeover, creating creases. I delay removing my socks until later so I don’t have to stand barefoot on the dirty floor for long.

Next, I take off my freshly pressed, state-issued khaki shirt and pants. The guard crumples both up to make sure there aren’t any smuggled goods hidden inside. Watching him, the self-respect I felt wearing this carefully-ironed outfit slips away. The wrinkled prison uniform now lies atop my creased-up sneakers.

At this point, I’m dejected. The sorrow mounts as I remove my white undershirt, leaving me standing in my socks, boxers and tank top.

Next, I do away with the tank top, my bare chest exposed. 

Then I remove my socks — I’d rather stand barefoot on this filthy floor than reveal my private parts sooner than I have to.

Finally, I strip out of my underwear. The dreaded inspection begins. 

I face the guard, hands above my head, to show there is nothing concealed in my armpits. Mouth wide open, I lift up my tongue and run my left index finger over my gums. I imagine my ancestors on the slave trading block undergoing a similar procedure. 

Reluctantly, I grab and lift my testicles with my right hand to show there is nothing hidden in my crotch area. 

I turn around exposing my backside. I raise my left, then right foot to show the bottom of my feet are clear of any contraband. In one swift motion, I squat, cough and bend at the waist, using my hands to spread my butt cheeks to show there is nothing concealed in my asshole.

These two minutes eviscerate the joy I felt for the hour and a half I spent with my loved ones.

After passing this final inspection, the procedure is complete, and I begin to put on my clothes. In my rush, I absentmindedly put my boxers on backwards and my socks on inside out. I just want to clothe myself to cover my shame.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Shakeil Price is a writer, poet and participant in the Captive Voices Writing Program at New Jersey State Prison, where he is incarcerated.