updated 7/14/2005 10:06:37 PM ET 2005-07-15T02:06:37

Tens of thousands of female jail inmates were told to submit to gynecological exams or be sent to medical isolation, under a policy that the city is now dropping, according to lawyers and court documents.

In a legal settlement June 21, the city agreed to begin informing women inmates that they have the right to refuse the exams without retaliation. The city also agreed to pay millions of dollars to people who were strip-searched in city jails after arrests on suspicion of misdemeanor charges or violations such as traffic infractions.

The city for years had told every woman admitted to the Rikers Island jail that she had to undergo a pelvic exam, a Pap smear and a breast exam or move into isolation, said Richard Cardinale, the lead attorney in the class-action lawsuit.

After the lawsuit was filed in 2002 the Corrections Department began limiting strip searches to a smaller group of inmates, including those suspected of felonies, drug or weapons-related crimes, a Corrections spokesman said.

But Cardinale said Wednesday that the Corrections Department had not yet begun informing women of their right to refuse the gynecological exams.

Clarissa Goldsmith, 41, said she was arrested in March for smoking marijuana in front of a fast-food restaurant and pleaded guilty to a drug-possession charge.

‘That's private’
She was sentenced to serve more than a month at Rikers Island, where she underwent at least her fifth gynecological exam at the hands of jail medical authorities. She said the doctor who examined her was courteous and respectful, but the procedure was painful and humiliating.

“How does it make me feel to have to come into a prison to get my vaginal area searched?” she said. “That’s private.”

Goldsmith said she was unaware that she had a choice about being examined.

“If you do not do that you automatically get confined to isolation,” she said. “You don’t get a bed.”

Some tests were unnecessary
Cardinale said the gynecological exams were not meant to protect other female inmates and were medically unnecessary in many cases. Women inmates did not know they had the right to refuse, he said.

“Those things have nothing to do with security or spreading diseases,” Cardinale said. “I have yet to meet a person who has refused ... Nobody ever complained about it because everybody thought that it was allowed.”

The city’s lead attorney in the lawsuit, Genevieve Nelson, said through a spokeswoman Wednesday that offering the exams was required under state law.

The spokeswoman referred all further questions about the exams to the Health Department, which adminsters the city’s jail medical system. A Health Department spokesman said he could not immediately comment on the issue.

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