Family members say they went through humiliating experiences while trying to visit their loved ones in prison: Submit to a strip search or you can never return, mothers forced to get naked in front of their children and women still being turned away for wearing tampons. 8News continues to investigative The Virginia Department of Corrections strip search policy for visitors and is uncovering serious issues and policy violations.
Just last week, Governor Ralph Northam (D) directed DOC to end its practice of strip searching minors after an 8 year-old girl was stripped of her clothes without her parent’s consent. We’re told state officials and DOC are continuing to review their visitor search procedures as visitors share with 8News they’re experiences making them feel like the criminals.
“It’s very abrasive. Your choice is yes or no. And if you say no, you don’t get to come back,” says a woman whose identity we are hiding to protect her and her husband behind bars.
She says she’s been strip searched twice at Sussex II State Prison and threatened if she didn’t submit to the search, she would be permanently banned from visits.
“You can’t treat visitors like we have no rights,” she says.
But not wanting to banned from the prison and miss that time with her husband, she agreed to the search. She describes it, “You stand there naked and you’re forced to cough and squat three times, three times in front of strangers. I am mortified, I am crying, I am very angry.”
She’s not the only one.
“If you deny the strip search, they won’t let you visit you know. They’ll deny your visits permanently,” says another woman who 8News is also not identifying. The woman said she too was told, strip, or never come back when she visited her fiance at Buckingham Correctional Center.
“They had strip searched me in front of my two kids, literally everything and then you have squat, cough, like you are an inmate too,” she recalled.
In a statement, Lisa Kinney, a spokesperson with the Department Of Corrections says, “While it is not Department of Corrections policy to permanently ban anyone based on non-compliance with a strip search, it’s clear there is confusion concerning its application.”
In the case of these two women, prior to the strip search, both had already been required to pass through a body scanner that shows everything. Yet, that’s not DOC policy.
Kinney tells us, “Current policy is that visitors are not strip searched after a body scan. It is possible that as scanners were first being introduced (which started as a pilot program), a visitor could have been asked to allow a strip search when something was detected by the scanner.”
In the end, both women cleared of any contraband. Yet, both were denied a contact visit. The woman visiting her fiance told 8News, “I had to do a video visit it with him through a phone, through a television screen. I couldn’t even sit in front of him glass to glass. I have a clean record. I have driven many hours to go see him. I have taken my kids early in the morning so we can see they’re dad, it is very discouraging.”
Studies have shown visitation leads to better success rate for inmate. The woman trying to visit her husband at Sussex II says, “According to DOC policy the visits are supposed to be beneficial to the inmates and therefore the population. Visitation should be a very important part of rehabilitation.”
The other woman adds, “That is all they have to look forward to is visits to see their family members.” 8News also continues to uncover stories of women being targeted for their tampons even though state leaders said that policy was suspended.
“The first incident was they scanned me and pulled me back up from entering into the prison because I had a feminine product,” says the woman visiting her husband. She was told it wasn’t a big deal and she would just have a non-contact visit. Yet, it is a big deal to her.
“Oh it’s a very big deal to me. I work and visit my husband on the weekends and I drove almost an hour to go visit him,” she said.
8News reviewed and compared the search policies for prison visitors in surrounding states. We found Virginia’s is among the strictest. The Commonwealth’s neighbors in North Carolina, Maryland and West Virginia don’t strip search visitors, don’t use body scanners and don’t put restrictions on women using feminine products. Visitors in the three states pass through metal detectors and maybe subject to a pat and frisk, similar to what you would experience at the airport.
In Tennessee, Kentucky and Delaware visitors and minors may be strip searched. However, in Kentucky and Delaware there are no restrictions on feminine products. Tennessee’s policy states: “Visitors may be required to replace their feminine hygiene products in the presence of institutional staff only if there exists individualized reasonable suspicion to prove that contraband is being brought in. Local policy may dictate non-contact visitation as an alternative option when a feminine hygiene product is detected.”
Lastly, unlike Virginia, in Delaware if no contraband is found, visitors are assured their contact visit.
“I feel like I am one of them, like I am a prisoner too,” says the woman trying to see he fiancé.
8News shared its findings with the Governor’s office and Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran. Our requests for an interview were ignored. Instead we were provided with a statement from Secretary Moran:
The Department of Corrections is continuing to review search procedure policy, per Governor Northam’s directive. That being said, they will stop the practice of strip searching minors.
The Department of Corrections has stated repeatedly that it is not their policy to permanently ban anyone based on non-compliance with a strip search. I am deeply concerned this is happening. I have directed the Department of Corrections to make it clear to all facilities and staff that this practice is unacceptable, and to put in place clear guidelines to ensure no one is permanently banned for this reason.”Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran
DOC has said the search of visitors is an effort to crackdown on the contraband coming into the prison. Inmates have gotten their hand on drugs, overdosed and died. The women both told 8News they would like to see an external and unannounced review of DOC’s search policies on visitors.
Meantime Kinney tells us, “Anyone who has been incorrectly told they are permanently banned for this reason should reapply for visiting rights through the Department of Corrections website. We will quickly and thoroughly review their case.”
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