The Fourth Amendment Stripped Bare: Substantiating Prisoners’ Reasonable Right to Bodily Privacy

Meher Babbar | April 18, 2021

Prisoners’ rights to bodily privacy under the Fourth Amendment are limited, allowing detention officials to strip-search them for contraband. The extent to which the Fourth Amendment protects prisoners, however, is uncertain. Questions regarding whether strip searches require reasonable suspicion and the manner in which officials may conduct strip searches have troubled courts for decades. In the absence of clear guidance from the Supreme Court, courts have reached inconsistent conclusions, imperiling the human rights and dignity of prisoners. This Note argues that courts should define and apply prisoners’ rights to bodily privacy with reference to international human-rights law, specifically the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. By looking to this standard, courts can define the right to bodily privacy under the Fourth Amendment in a manner that aligns with the informed and carefully debated consensus of nations, moving away from the inconsistent decision-making of the lower courts that has failed to produce any cognizable doctrine. Resolving this uncertainty will not only allow for greater doctrinal clarity in this area of law, but also bolster the human rights and basic dignity of prisoners as guaranteed to them by the Constitution.