This essay is part of our series exploring the juvenile justice landscape in Pittsburgh with a focus on education and mental health. These stories were funded by Staunton Farm Foundation and The Grable Foundation. You can read other essays from inside of the juvenile justice system here and here.
Over 20 juveniles are incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail under Pennsylvania’s Act 33, a law which mandates that children as young as age 14 are charged as adults for certain crimes considered to be serious by lawmakers. Read our investigation into ACT 33 cases and juveniles at the Allegheny County Jail here.
I know the effect a strip search has on the human spirit because I experienced this myself during my incarceration at the Allegheny County Jail when I was 20 years old. I have struggled to process my traumatic experiences in jail, but it is through community and storytelling that I attempt to heal.
I was a young adult, but children are strip searched in the jail, too, with no special consideration for their age or their ability to process the reality of their situation.
In the April 2023 Jail Oversight Board Meeting, Warden Orlando Harper discussed the process of strip-searching youth in the Allegheny County Jail. The alleged offenders were not children in the eyes of the criminal legal system, Harper said.
“Juveniles are treated as adults, so there’s no extra precautions as far as a juvenile being strip searched from an adult offender. They committed adult crimes, so we treat them as such,” he said.
County jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse wrote in an email, “The Allegheny County Jail’s primary goal is ensuring the safety and security of the staff and incarcerated population. Searches of this nature are a routine part of the incarceration process and are essential for preventing contraband from entering the facility.”
Currently, no juvenile in the Allegheny County Jail is serving time for a criminal conviction. They are being held based on criminal allegations and awaiting their opportunity to plead their case.
At 18 years old, you are considered an adult in the eyes of the legal system, even if you do not have the experience and maturity that comes with age. When I was 20, I felt like an adult, right up until the day when I entered the Allegheny County Jail and was forced to surrender control of myself, my situation, and even my body.
After being arrested for missing a court date, I was jailed while waiting to speak with a judge. I stayed in the booking and processing area during my first few days until they were ready to take me upstairs. I was frustrated that I couldn’t even control whether or not I could turn off the lights and grew restless from the boredom of being caged and not knowing what comes next. I wish I had known that these were the smallest of my problems.
Days after my arrest, I was escorted from the booking area to another section of the jail, led to a small room, and ordered by a female corrections officer to remove my clothing. I remember staring blankly at the wall as I removed my pants, my shirt, my underwear, and finally my bra. I tried to dissociate from the experience and pretend I was not aware of the male corrections officer in view as I squatted down, spread my cheeks, allowed these people to see parts of me that I had never seen with my own eyes.
I almost forgot that I was a person, naked in front of strangers, as I went through the motions until the female officer made a joke about the weight of my breasts and my bra size.
I couldn’t look her in the eye as she handed me a set of jail-issued red clothing and a bra that we both knew would be too small.
To this day I struggle to have an honest conversation about the experience.
Through my work at the Abolitionist Law Center, I’ve spoken to several kids who have been incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail. We talk about the food, the boredom, wanting to go home, missing important events like prom and graduation. Rarely do we talk about these strip searches and, in a way, I understand why. It takes time to truly process the impact a traumatic event has on you, especially when you are working hard to forget it and move past it.
Understanding my experience is easier when talking to people who have gone through similar ordeals. It is easy for me to find adults who have been incarcerated, but who do kids talk to when they go through this type of traumatic situation?
For my friend and fellow activist Muhammad Ali Nasir, 34, the answer to that question is “no one.” He still carries the weight of being incarcerated at 16 with him. He wrestles to put into words what happened to him over a decade ago. Even though he was a child at the time, Muhammad’s introduction to adulthood began the night he was arrested.
In 2005, police accused Muhammad of committing armed robbery. Under PA Juvenile Justice Act 33, an armed robbery charge automatically excluded Muhammad from going through the juvenile legal system. Instead, he was charged as an adult and held in the Allegheny County Jail.
Officers arrived at his house late at night, handcuffed him, and drove him to the jail. They did not explain why he was under arrest or where he was going. Muhammad said that they did not permit him to speak to or see his mother before taking him to the jail and a week passed before he was able to speak to her.
He said he did not have any support inside the jail. Because of his age he was isolated from the adults, given very little phone access, and no guidance about what would come next in the process. He sat in the booking area (the same place I would sit later) — alone, confused and waiting for his time before a judge.
On the day of his preliminary arraignment, he did not have a lawyer or any family support, and no one on the outside knew what was happening to him as he went before a judge by himself. After just a two-minute arraignment, a judge assigned him a $25,000 bail after only asking him his name and reading his charges aloud. He was a minor, just 16 years old, too young to vote or join the military, but he understood then that the system no longer viewed him as a child.
Years later, the shock of that moment stands out to Muhammad as he recalls being sent back into the jail after the judge’s bail decision.
“I didn’t even realize I was going to jail. I didn’t know there was such a thing as an adult crime until I got into the facility and I see all of these adults. Everybody talks about juveniles committing adult crimes but that’s all arbitrarily decided. What is an adult crime? The brain doesn’t even develop fully at 18,” Muhammad said.
“They didn’t let us co-mingle, which didn’t make sense to me. So, how it worked out, I was essentially in the hole. They would keep in there for hours, and then I would get to go out after they put everyone else in,” he said.
Because he was charged under Act 33, he was taken to the county jail. At the same time, because he was under 18, Muhhamad was placed in a holding cell alone, only able to watch the adults but not interact.
Had jail staff not isolated Muhammad, or, had they given him some insight into what would happen next, he may have been able to prepare himself for the strip search mentally. However, the process of moving through the Allegheny County Jail is profoundly disorienting and confusing.
By the time Muhammad was strip searched, he had accepted that he no longer had control over the situation. Just as I had done, he tried to dissociate during the strip search as he was given commands ordering him to remove his clothing in front of a group of strangers.
“I’m accepting it as I accepted everything else. I remember it was this very tall white guy with a deep voice who ordered me to do it. Take off your clothes. Spread your cheeks. Lift your sack. Bend over. Cough. I had never heard those words together before to even comprehend. Lift my what?” he recalled.
After days of being in a cell alone, Muhammad says he stood naked in a room full of correctional officers and incarcerated adults before being handed a pile of jail-issue clothing and rubber shoes.
He no longer felt like a child.
I did not fully recognize the impact that being strip searched at the jail had on me until many years later and even more so after speaking with Muhammad about our shared experiences.
It has taken me years to acknowledge that I move differently since being stripped and searched. Just as much, I am more free with my body because I do not want to give anyone the power of feeling that they have taken something from that experience. I notice how I fight to control my environment and take charge of situations, never wanting to give anyone else an opportunity to have something they do not deserve.
Trauma manifests in different ways, no matter how hard we try to put it behind us. For Muhammad, certain scents bring him back to his time at the jail.
“The whole thing is traumatic to the body and the brain, but the body keeps the score. The shoes in the jail are made of rubber. Anytime I smell rubber, it’s like I am physically in the jail, or mentally, I feel like I am going to go back. Back to that environment of isolation, violence, and negativity,” he said.
I am grateful that I have a friend like Muhammad who I can talk to about experiences like this and bond over our shared trauma. Most kids who are incarcerated do not have these type of support systems and can easily end up like Muhammad and me: traumatized adults who joke about the situations meant to break us as we process them in our own way–afraid to tackle the trauma head on but willing to talk about it if it helps another person.
As adults, we have a responsibility not only to acknowledge but also to mitigate the trauma that we put kids through when we incarcerate them. You can’t undo the harm caused by juvenile incarceration, and the only real solution is to stop the practice altogether. Until then, we must end the practice of strip searching the juveniles in the Allegheny County Jail.
We can be better than what has been done to us.
Tanisha Long is a Community Organizer with the Abolitionist Law Center. She is an activist deeply committed to addressing issues of injustice in our criminal punishment systems, schools, and mental health institutions.