Bill would give county jails more authority to perform strip searches

MADISON/OZAUKEE COUNTY (WITI) -- A bill is gaining traction in the Wisconsin Legislature, which would give county jails more authority to strip search incoming inmates regardless of a conviction.

Mondays are especially busy at the Ozaukee County Jail in Port Washington. 170 is the typical inmate count, but those numbers fluctuate hourly as people are brought in and released.

Everyone coming in is patted down and must step through a metal detector -- but unless someone has been convicted and is serving a sentence, corrections officers cannot do a strip search.

Assembly Bill 556 would change that -- allowing county jails to strip search more people.

"Right now, we are not allowed to strip search pre-sentenced detainees," James Johnson, Undersheriff at the Ozaukee County Sheriff's Office said.

Pre-sentenced and sentenced inmates may ultimately mingle in the jail's general population, which means something snuck in can get to almost anyone on the inside.

"I believe we've had four cases in the past year of drugs getting past a pat-down search," Ozaukee County Jail Administrator Jeff Sauer said.

"A heroin issue in our county and counties across the nation -- and not allowing us to search could allow the introduction of heroin into our facility," Johnson said.

Not everyone who is brought in will be searched.

"It's only those that are arrested and kept in our jails for longer than 12 hours," Johnson said.

Jail officials say it's not necessary to strip search people who have a relatively short and isolated stay in a holding cell. Instead, the goal is to make a greater effort so drugs and weapons don't make their way into county jails.

These searches would be "visually only," and would occur in a private room, with a corrections officer of the same gender.

The bill passed the Assembly -- and a public hearing in the Senate could happen on Tuesday, February 25th.