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Why do prisoners have to squat and cough?

The squat and cough procedure is a routine part of intake searches at prisons and jails across the United States. During the process, inmates are required to squat over a mirror and cough to allow visual inspection of their pelvic regions for contraband. This invasive search has generated significant controversy, with critics arguing it violates privacy rights. However, most courts have upheld the practice as a necessary security measure. This article will examine the reasons behind the squat and cough, its legal status, and the debate surrounding this controversial procedure.

Purpose of the Squat and Cough

The primary goal of the squat and cough is to detect contraband concealed in body cavities. Items like drugs, weapons, or tools for escape attempts can potentially be hidden in inmates’ rectums or vaginas. Having detainees squat over a mirror and cough allows visual inspection of these sensitive areas. Corrections officials argue such searches are essential to maintain security and prevent contraband smuggling.

Some specific reasons why prisons utilize the squat and cough procedure:

  • Detect drugs – Illicit substances like heroin or cocaine can be wrapped in plastic and inserted in body cavities. The squat and cough can find these drugs to prevent trafficking behind bars.
  • Find weapons – Shanks, sharpened objects, or other dangerous improvised weapons may be concealed in the rectum or vagina. These items pose threats to staff and inmates if smuggled into the facility undetected.
  • Uncover escape tools – Objects like handcuff keys, hacksaw blades, or wire can be hidden to aid in escape attempts. The squat and cough is intended to find these prohibited materials.
  • Maintain sanitary conditions – Contraband items may be unsanitary. Detecting and removing them helps maintain cleaner conditions within the prison.

Corrections officials view the squat and cough as an unpleasant but necessary measure to uphold security and protect inmates and staff. They argue the intrusive nature of the search is offset by its effectiveness for uncovering dangerous contraband.

Legal Status

The legality of the squat and cough procedure has been widely debated and litigated. Though legal challenges have been raised, most courts have found the practice to be constitutional. Key legal issues surrounding the squat and cough include:

Fourth Amendment Challenges

Critics argue the squat and cough violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. However, courts have generally found the procedure constitutes a reasonable search given the security needs of jails and prisons. An exception might apply if the search was conducted in an abusive fashion.

Eighth Amendment Questions

Some allege the squat and cough amounts to cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. But current jurisprudence suggests standard performance of the procedure does not violate the Eighth Amendment. Still, an abusive search or one targeting specific groups could potentially raise constitutional issues.

Prison Litigation Reform Act

The Prison Litigation Reform Act limits inmates’ ability to file federal civil rights lawsuits over prison conditions. Plaintiffs must show physical injury to recover damages. This law makes it difficult for prisoners to successfully sue over squat and cough searches unless they can demonstrate resulting bodily harm.

Overall, the legal precedents around the squat and cough favor prison authorities. Courts have deferred to arguments that the search constitutes a justifiable security measure given the contraband risks in correctional facilities.

The Squat and Cough Protocol

While specific policies vary, the squat and cough procedure generally follows a standard protocol:

Private Room

The search takes place in a private room with only the authorized officers and the inmate present. This aims to protect privacy as much as possible.

Squatting Over Mirror

The detainee is instructed to remove clothing and squat over a vertically positioned mirror. Squatting provides the visual exposure needed for inspection.


Coughing can dislodge objects partially inserted in body cavities to allow better visual detection. Inmates are told to cough deeply several times.

Visual Inspection

Officers visually examine the inmate’s pelvic region, including buttocks, genitals, and anus. Soft tissues are also checked.

Additional Searches

If necessary, officers may conduct strip searches before and after the squat and cough for maximum detection capabilities.

Standard procedures aim to balance security with inmate privacy and dignity concerns. Nonetheless, critics argue vulnerabilities remain for potential abuse.

Arguments Against the Practice

While courts have generally found the squat and cough constitutional, civil liberties advocates have raised numerous objections to the practice:

Invasion of Privacy

Forcing inmates to expose their most private areas to inspection is inherently invasive. Critics contend such humiliation should not occur without probable cause of concealment.

Physical and Emotional Trauma

The invasive viewing of genitals can be distressing, causing emotional and psychological harms, especially for victims of sexual abuse. Some allege physical issues like hemorrhoids can also result.

Risk of Abuse

The vulnerability required for accurate inspection creates risks of inappropriate touching, ridicule, or other mistreatment by untrained or malicious officers.

Discrimination Concerns

Some argue certain groups like religious detainees, conservative females, or juveniles are uniquely traumatized and unfairly targeted. Custom accommodations may be needed.

Negligible Contraband Impact

A lack of data on how much contraband the squat and cough actually discovers leaves critics questioning its actual security value. They argue less invasive options may suffice.

Deterioration of Human Dignity

Beyond privacy issues, some contend the squat and cough represent a deeper degradation of human dignity that is counterproductive to rehabilitative goals.

While acknowledging prisons’ security challenges, critics urge pursuing alternatives that better respect inmates’ rights and welfare. They advocate narrower restrictions on the practice at minimum.

Alternatives and Safeguards

To address concerns while still permitting thorough searches, some reform advocates propose the following alternatives and safeguards:

Restrict Usage

The squat and cough could be restricted only to instances where there is probable cause or reasonable suspicion of contraband concealment, rather than broadly applied.

Same-Sex Officers

Searches could be conducted only by officers of the same gender as inmates to reduce potential for abuse.

Enhanced Training

Special training for officers could better protect inmate dignity and minimize emotional impacts during necessary searches.

Body Scanner Technology

Advanced scanning devices could potentially detect contraband without requiring invasive physical exposure. However, these systems can be costly.

Drug Testing

While not detecting other contraband, improved drug testing capabilities could reduce the need for squat and cough searches to find substances.

Prevention and Screening

Strategies to restrict contraband access and target high-risk individuals could limit the scope of required searches.

External Monitoring

Outside oversight from agencies or watchdogs could help ensure proper conduct of searches and guard against abuses.

With careful balancing, procedures can potentially both preserve institutional security and respect human dignity. However, finding universally satisfactory solutions remains challenging.


The squat and cough procedure generates difficult debates with strong opinions on both sides. Though upheld by courts as constitutional, the visual anal and genital searches required clearly impose humiliations contrary to human dignity. Yet prisons also face real risks from contraband that require aggressive detection methods. Reconciling these factors has proven an ongoing challenge across the criminal justice system. It exemplifies the delicate balance between rights and security inherent in operating humane, orderly incarceration.

With contraband evolving and technology advancing, new solutions may eventually emerge. But for now, the squat and cough remains standard practice in prisons and jails nationwide. This controversial measure seems likely to stir continued legal, ethical, and practical debates as the country grapples with improving the conditions and outcomes of a massive correctional system. Finding the right equilibrium remains elusive, but the search for balance must continue for the protection and welfare of inmates and officers alike.