RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A former dental hygienist at the Augusta Correctional Center says she was fired two weeks after being accused of smuggling contraband inside the facility in 2019, claiming in a lawsuit she proved to prison guards she was on her period and body scan images showed a tampon.

Last week, a federal judge ruled Joyce Flores’ sexual discrimination lawsuit could move forward following a motion from the defendant named in the suit, the Virginia Department of Corrections, aimed to have a judge reject the case.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in November, says Flores was menstruating before she began her trip to work on July 17, 2019, going into detail about her experience on that day and her long commute from Sandston to Craigsville.

“On the morning of her two-hour commute, she was experiencing the heavy phase of her menstrual cycle and placed a super absorbent tampon in her vagina,” the lawsuit states. It continues by explaining Flores went through normal security protocol, including passing through a body scanner, when she entered the prison.

Flores began her day preparing for patients in her dental office. She eventually went to the bathroom and changed her tampon, according to the complaint. Flores forgot to bring another tampon with her when she went to the bathroom again later that morning.

“She knew she had a patient waiting for her to return, so she removed the tampon and replaced it with a small amount of tissue paper,” the lawsuit asserts.

Not long after returning to her dental office, a prison employee came and asked Flores to go through the body scanner again, two hours after she had started work, the complaint claims. Flores alleges the employee interrogated her, telling Flores he believed the body scan image from when she arrived “contained a suspicious item in her vagina that was not present on the body scan image taken moments earlier.”

Flores offered to prove she was on her period by going to the restroom with two female officers.

“Two female officers accompanied Plaintiff to restroom and one officer accompanied her to the stall where she confirmed that she did not have a tampon in, but that there was tissue with menstrual fluid on it, which she had removed from her vagina,” the lawsuit states.

The complaint also alleges Flores put in a new tampon and went through the scanner again, claiming she saw “multiple VDOC security staff taking pictures of the image of her body scan with their personal cell phones.”

Flores claims she failed to convince the warden the images showed a tampon and urged for him and the state’s Department of Corrections to contact the manufacturer of the body scanners in order for them to “get a better understanding of what they were seeing.”

Flores was put on administration leave for “suspicion of contraband” and two weeks later, on July 31, 2019, she was fired.

“Having not heard anything further, on July 31, 2019, Plaintiff called Warden Woodson back requesting to return to work. Warden Woodson responded by saying he was, ‘leaning toward termination.’ Plaintiff then asked him again if he checked with the manufacturer or a subject matter expert on the scans,” Flores’ lawsuit alleges. “Warden Woodson raised his voice and said, ‘I checked with my supervisor.’ At that point, he advised Plaintiff over the phone that VDOC was terminating her employment due to ‘suspicion of contraband.’”

The department argued Flores had not presented allegations showing her gender played a part in her dismissal. U.S. District Judge Thomas T. Cullen disagreed, ruling on Feb. 22 the lawsuit could continue.

“But for Flores’s menstruation and use of a tampon—conditions inextricable from her sex and her child-bearing capacity—she would not have been discharged,” Cullen wrote in an opinion.

Flores cited a highly controversial policy issued by the Virginia Department of Corrections in September 2018 preventing women visiting state prisons from using tampons or menstrual cups. The department argued those products could “appear” to be contraband in a scan.

The policy was eventually suspended after criticism, but Flores alleges in her suit “it was made public that VDOC was still treating visitors that were wearing tampons or menstrual cups differently than other visitors to the prisons.”

Flores is seeking $300,000 in damages and a trial by jury. The Department of Corrections has not yet responded to 8News’ request seeking comment.

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