‘I am not an inmate’: Virginia’s prison strip- search policy under fire

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Earlier this month, the Virginia Department of Corrections came under fire after a child was strip-searched at a Virginia prison. Since then, 8News has learned of adult visitors being strip-searched multiple times and some women are still being singled out for using tampons.

Visitors tell 8News they feel like they are being treated like they’re the criminals.

“I’m not an inmate. I didn’t do anything wrong,” said one woman who 8News is not identifying for her protection and the protection of her loved one behind bars.

She tells us she was stripped of her privacy and pride when she was told to get naked at the Augusta Correctional Center.

“It was horrible,” she explained.

She said after a two-hour drive to visit a loved one at the Augusta prison, a drug-sniffing dog flagged her before she could enter.

“They said the dog alerted to me and that I had to consent to a strip search and if I didn’t, I would have my visits taken away for six months,” she explained.

Wanting to see her loved one and not lose her visiting privileges, she consented to what she describes as a humiliating experience.

“They made me squat and cough, turnaround, lift up my breast,” she explained.

The strip search found nothing and it was only after she got naked that the guards told her that, under the Virginia Department of Corrections operating procedures, ‘even if no contraband is found’ she would ‘be limited to a non-contact visit.’

“They said I had to see him through a video. I said, ‘what was the point of you strip-searching me if I couldn’t have contact? What kind of policy is that?’” she questioned.

Lisa Kinney, spokeswoman for DOC, tells us visitors are denied contact because they could “still be hiding something in a body cavity.” DOC describes the strip searches as ‘non-invasive’ because ‘no one is touched.’

“We are not inmates, we didn’t do anything wrong,” the visitor said.

So, on her next visit when a K-9 alerted again, she refused another strip search even though it meant she could be denied entry and lose her visiting privileges for good.

“I said, ‘what is the purpose of me constantly coming up here getting butt naked for y’all and I can’t see him?'” she said. “I am not going to do it.”

Studies show prison visits are important. Inmates who maintain contact with loved ones are less likely to re-offend. Yet, the visitor tells us, “I haven’t been ever since.”

“Visitors are put in a catch-22 of either consenting to an extremely invasive, humiliating search or risking not being able to see your loved one anymore,” says Nicole Tortoriello, a women’s rights lawyer with the ACLU of Virginia.

Tortoriello calls the prison policy coercive. The DOC says people can choose to not be strip-searched.

“I would argue it’s not a true choice,” Tortoriello said. “If your choice is strip search or never see your loved one again, that’s not really a choice.”

DOC says the policies are in place to reduce contraband from coming into the prisons.

Strip searches have turned up plenty of visitors trying to sneak in drugs. Some prisoners have overdosed and died. Still, the Virginia DOC’s search methods are getting national criticism. That child that was strip-searched trying to see her father was just 8-years-old.

Governor Ralph Northam took to Twitter writing he was “deeply disturbed.” He suspended the policy for minors pending an investigation.

Last year, visitors and corrections officers complained to 8News about some prisons, including Augusta, using body scanners that show everything.

“You can see every crack and crevice and detail of your body,” said visitor Denny Barger. And, Virginia made national headlines with the DOC tried to ban visitors from wearing tampons or other menstrual products.

8News has since learned while the state supposedly suspended the ban, females are still to this day getting flagged for their feminine products.

“They told me recently that I could not have a visit because she has a tampon in,” says the visitor whose name we are not revealing. She tells us she fought it but was still singled out. “I was told I had to sit in the very front of the visitation room because I had a tampon in.”

The ACLU of Virginia was not at all surprised when we shared her story.

“We continue to receive complaints. We would encourage a review of all of these policies,” says Tortoriello.

In a series of reports over the years, 8News has requested an interview with DOC Director Harold Clarke. He once again declined our request for an interview.

“DOC they are making policies and doing whatever they want to do,” the anonymous visitor added. “I feel like the governor at this moment is the only one who can step in.”

8News reached out to Governor Ralph Northam’s office multiple times for comment but our requests have been ignored.

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