I Was Strip-Searched, But My White Cellmates Were Not

Courtesy Jenni Monet / Detained journalist Jenni Monet and the women she shared a cell with overnight in February.

I Was Strip-Searched, But My White Cellmates Were Not

It has been four months since I was zip-tied by police and bussed with dozens of “water protectors,” or protesters from a snowy hillside on the North Dakota prairie to a county jail in Mandan, North Dakota. But the charges pending against me—criminal trespassing and rioting—have yet to be dropped, despite repeated public appeals made to Morton County that I was a journalist complying with police orders documenting protest activity that day. The campaign for press freedom surrounding my case continues, including today’s launch of advocacy from Amnesty International. To mark this occasion, I am publishing the account of my 30-hours of detention that I drafted in the days following my release on February 2. My hope is to continue to amplify my demands to have the charges against me dropped and my criminal record expunged by August 30. An attack on one journalist is an attack on all. Journalism is not a crime.

We were a cage full of 19 women locked inside an oversized garage large enough to house school buses full of inmates like me. It was the first evening of February inside the Morton County Correctional Center, and the winter breeze was biting as it blew through gaps of chain link fencing from where we stood caged on a cold slab of concrete.

We were wearing t-shirts and leggings, the only layer of clothing that police allowed. One young woman, Amanda Moore of Minnesota, shivered among us the most. She was dressed in Spandex tights and a spaghetti-strapped tanktop, her spindly arms exposed to the evening chill. Repeatedly and kindly, she had asked corrections officers for a sweater from her discarded clothing now stuffed inside a clear, plastic trash bag that had been lumped with many others on the opposite side of the cage.

A white woman, whose name I did not document, had complained of being cold too. A female guard had let her dig through her belongings for a fleece top. But not Amanda. The only African-American among a cell of Native American and white women, Amanda found her requests were ignored, even when some of the other inmates had alerted the jail captain, Dave Psyck, about this oversight.

Captain Psyck is a short and stocky man, and when he gets angry his round, pale face turns hues of red. He verbally accosted me after I politely but persistently inquired for the third time about when we would be receiving our right to a phone call. In my six months of reporting at Standing Rock and the arrests of literally hundreds of water protectors—more than 700 cases by the time the last protest camps were razed in February—I knew from their arraignment hearings that the majority of these inmates had complained to the judge. During their detentions, they were never given an opportunity to make a phone call, they stated.

Instead of addressing my question, Psyck began his rant toward me.

“I’m trying to manage a jail that’s at 300 percent capacity right now, all because you won’t leave property when you’re told,” he said.

I turned my back on him and leaned against the chain link fence, staring down at my boots, thinking to myself—but I did leave, and yet I was still arrested. I wanted to correct the captain but knew that it would only make matters worse.

He started cursing at me, or maybe at all of us.

He said things like, ‘I’m just trying to get your asses upstairs,’ and, ‘I don’t have time for this shit.’ These aren’t direct quotes, but shared accounts gathered in interviews I conducted with many of the women following our release.

“I’m a journalist,” I told Cpt. Psyck, hoping that would temper his anger. But it only made him more enraged.

Cpt. Psyck threatened to make the booking process drag out even longer. It was enough to turn some of the other women in our cage against me. Amanda was the most vocal.

“Stop! He’s the nicest guard we’ve had all night,” complained Amanda. Her chiding was followed by moans from many others, most of them Native American women. I was shocked. For me, it represented an alarming display of how brown people of the plains have learned to deal with a culture of oppression that has, for more than a century, defined daily life.

Cpt. Psyck wouldn’t stop cursing. At one point, he said something like, ‘I don’t mean to be cussing you out but.…’

“Then could you please refrain from using such language,” I asked him with deliberate calm. “We’re a cage full of women.”

Morton County / Amanda Patrice Moore, one of several women who shared a cell with detained journalist Jenni Monet during the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

That’s when Moore and the others—almost all in their twenties—griped at me again. Some of them hadn’t slept in nearly 24 hours. They just wanted to settle in where they could sleep, they later said.

I remained silent, and after the jail captain left, I told the others that out of respect for the booking process, I would keep my mouth shut until we had all reached our cells. But I let them know that I would be fighting for my right to a phone call, once upstairs.

“Being denied what few rights we have on the inside is not okay,” I told them, and explained how so many others who have passed through this jail had complained about how their civil liberties had been violated in the courts.

As the water protectors began trickling out from the cage to be taken upstairs, 39-year-old Hehakaskawin Tuske (Kristen Tuske is her English name) turned to me on her way out.

Morton County / Hehakaskawin Tuske, one of Jenni Monet’s cellmates in Morton County, North Dakota, in February.

“You’re right,” she said quietly. “Last time I was in jail, I didn’t get a phone call at all, and I was shipped across the state.”

Tuske was among the 141 people who were arrested on October 27, the day Morton County and its coalition of forces razed the Treaty Camp that sat in the path of the pipeline.

It must have been sometime after noon when we got our hopes up that we might be released in time for dinner; in time to maybe see the final burst of daylight. It was February 2, and I had been sharing a cellblock with five other women since around 11 p.m. the night before. Two of us were Native American—including a Diné woman from Mesa, Arizona. Three others were white. And then there was Karla Colon-Aponte, a 21-year-old Puerto Rican who had been arrested in the movement once before. That made her our “expert” on what to expect while on the inside, since none of us had ever been detained before.

Morton County / Karla Colon-Aponte, another water protector who shared a cell with Jenni Monet.

“I was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to squat and cough on our way out most likely,” said Karla. She was referring to the strip-search method we had endured upon being processed into jail—what Morton County defines as a “visual assessment” in a 2004 policy document.

But it appeared as though some of my cellmates had escaped this humiliation.

“I was like, ‘Squat and cough’? What are you talking about?’ ” recalled Elizabeth Christensen, 29, a water protector also known by her camp nickname, “Chase.”

According to Elizabeth and another cellmate, Genevieve Wallis, 30, the two white women were spared the humiliation of having to bend down, naked, before an inspecting female correction officer. In fact, both women say they were excused from getting fully unclothed. In our cell, Genevieve said she was able to leave her panties on but had to remove her bra. Elizabeth said she didn’t even have to do that.

Morton County / Elizabeth Christensen, a non-Native arrested water protector, was not strip-searched as many women of color were when arrested with Monet.

“She didn’t ask me to take off my clothes or anything,” said Elizabeth. Before arriving at the main Oceti Sakowin camp in November, the blond water protector had been living in Las Vegas, carving out a living as an actress and a dancer.

“I heard, because I was wearing a sports bra that didn’t have underwire or something, that I didn’t have to take off my bra,” she explained.

“But they didn’t make me take my bottoms off or do the squat and cough procedure, either,” Elizabeth told me, again, when I met up with her at camp one February night.

She had first shared her story with me and our other cellmates as we sat draped in our single-issued blanket in a cold, cinderblock room. The revelation that some of us were “visually assessed” while others were not, surfaced around the time we sat huddled on hard metal seats attached to a table, casually bonding over the film The Notebook. The movement’s mantra, Mni Wiconi which loosely means “Water is Life” in Lakota, was scratched into the table’s paint. Those two words were inscribed everywhere inside the jail, I later observed.

Elizabeth described the guard who had excused her from the strip search as middle-aged, brunette and slightly heavyset—not the blonde, thin, officer that I had been assigned.

And it had seemed that other white women were spared the humiliation of being strip-searched, at least according to Christensen. After I was released from jail on the night of February 2, she said that she and our other cellmates had been transferred to another room across the hall. There, they encountered other water protectors.

“Most of the girls there had to squat and cough, but not all of them,” said Elizabeth.

I did not get names of these other alleged cases or information about their ethnicities. My arrest fell in the midst of reporting on the fall of one of the greatest indigenous gatherings of modern time. That month of February, President Donald J. Trump reversed the Obama administration’s halting of the Dakota Access Pipeline and called on the rapid completion of the four-state-long crude-oil line. In turn, an emboldened North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum ramped up evacuation orders to clear the sprawling network of camps that had for months been nestled near the pipeline drill pad. At a time when I should have been focused on the critical developments of the movement at Standing Rock, I was juggling attention to details behind my arrest and imprisonment.

“It’s humiliating. It’s unnerving,” said Jade Kalikolehuaokukalani Wool. The Oglala and Native Hawaiian is also a transgendered woman. When being processed for her mug shot, she said correction officers asked her two simple questions before locking her up in solitary confinement—her gender and her ethnicity.

“All the officer asked me was, ‘what I was,’ and my race, and that was enough to put me in solitary confinement,” said Wool.

She said officers told her it was “policy” to separate transgendered people in their own cell, a common practice that even the National Center for Transgender Equality confirms on its website, while calling the practice unfair. It’s unfair, because it subjects inmates like Wool to places where non-trans inmates are relegated as a form of punishment.

via Facebook / Jade Kalikolehuaokukalani Wool, detained at the same time as Jenni Monet.

There was no phone to receive voicemail messages in Wool’s solitary confinement cell. Ten people had called and inquired about her safety in the nearly two days she was detained, she said.

“You know, you don’t know if anyone knows where you’re at,” Wool said.

It would take 25 hours from the time of my arrest before I was able to dial out to my attorney in Washington D.C. While the jail cells had phones inside, they were fixed to block any collect calls made to outside law offices. When Cpt. Psyck hand delivered me a note with a message from my attorney around 2 p.m. on Thursday, February 2, I asked him how to get around the phone block. How could I obtain a calling card to make my one phone call, I asked him.

He said he didn’t know, and slammed the large metal door shut behind him.

It wasn’t until hours later when my cellmates and I were escorted across the hall to the recreation room for a brief reprieve, that I spotted a telephone lying haphazardly on the floor. It seemed out of place. Its cords were snaked wildly across the cold linoleum and disappeared behind a strange door, a closet maybe. But it was clear that the phone had not been connected to the wall.

I asked the guard about the significance of the phone. He told me it was for making outside phone calls. His name was Andrew, and he was kind. Without hesitation, he accepted my request to call my attorney by first stretching the telephone’s long cord across the hall into my cell. It allowed for privacy and the realization that so many people had been demanding my release, according to my lawyer. By 9 p.m. that night, I had been released from jail, perhaps one of the first to be bonded out.

In the few remaining hours that I remained under Morton County’s custody, I returned to the rec center, which is partly a library, where my cellmates had stacked a pile of books they had deemed as racist literature, mostly toward Native Americans.

“One title that really stuck out was by the name of Savage Bound,” recalled Carla, the water protector from Puerto Rico. She described the cover art as depicting a warrior-like Native American in action, wearing a buckskin loincloth and headdress but little else. “I was like, ‘where am I?’ ”

The girls had stacked close to 90 books that evening, nearly a third of the rec room’s donated collection.

The titles made me think of Saige Pourier, or Peji Hota Win, by her Lakota name. We had met for the first time while caged together downstairs during the first few hours after our arrest. When Cpt. Psyck called her to be processed upstairs, he stumbled in pronouncing her first name.

“Pourier,” he said, then paused. She met him at the gate as he looked up at her and said something I will never forget.

“Does that say savage?” he asked her.

My jaw dropped as I stood behind the chain-link fence and heard Pourier, 26, correct him.

“It clearly says Saige,” she said quietly.

“Oh, I thought you were a savage,” Cpt. Psyck said, and handed over her plastic bag of clothes. My heart sank.

On a Sunday in mid-February the young Oglala Sioux water protector had convened a two-day women’s gathering that she and a fellow camper had organized. In the audience was Pourier’s mother, Deborah Tobacco, or Tasina Peju Ta Win. She hadn’t been told about Cpt. Psyck’s comments.

“She already worries a lot,” said Pourier, fighting back tears. “But that’s how they treat Natives.”

“That really breaks my heart,” said Tobacco, 47. Her arms were wrapped around her daughter’s shoulders.

“We’ve experienced that our whole lives, going into stores, being followed, being profiled just because we’re Native people; that we’re going to do something destructive,” Tobacco added. “Still, she’s aware of that. Her spirit’s still strong, because I know that she’s strong and grounded in prayer.”

Indian Country Media Network approached Morton County to respond to the allegations of my account with regard to Cpt. Psyck’s verbal assault, the disparities of strip-searching, its transgendered policy, and the racist collection of books in the rec center. The appointed public information officer at the time, Rob Keller, replied saying he did “not have knowledge” of the dialogue shared between myself and Cpt. Psyck and offered Morton County’s admission and search policies. In the word document, it makes no exclusionary statements regarding those who should and should not be strip-searched. And there is no mention of transgendered peoples.

How this story was reported: Scenes and depictions written here are from notes that were immediately compiled upon booking inside Morton Co. Correction Center from small pieces of paper and a single pen that was issued to Monet and her cellmates. Follow-up interviews were conducted to confirm information experienced collectively from cellmates detained along with Monet. And Indian Country Media Network staff worked to confirm accounts from Morton County.

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