Advocates score rare victory as Virginia prisons back down from tampon ban
This week, the Virginia Department of Corrections announced a new policy that forbids visitors from using tampons or feminine hygiene cups. “As a result of recent inquiries in regards to feminine products being an ideal way to conceal contraband, effective October 6, 2018, the use of tampons or menstrual cups are no longer to be worn during visitation,” the policy reads. “Offender visitors who have been recognized by the body scanner machine having a foreign object that could possibly be a tampon and has failed to remove such item prior to being screened, will have their visitation terminated for the day and will have their visitation privileges reviewed.” The director of communications for the Virginia Department of Corrections assured people that visitors would be offered pads. [Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg / Truthout]
The ACLU of Virginia was not assuaged by this assurance. “Helping people who are housed in jail or prison stay connected to friends, families, and communities is critical to rehabilitation and eventual, successful re-entry to society,” said Bill Farrar of the ACLU of Virginia. “[A] policy like this one that requires those who wish to visit people who are incarcerated to set aside their dignity and health is simply unacceptable.” Denny Maria, a visitor to a Virginia facility where her husband is incarcerated, said that this is part of a pattern. Two months ago, she was forced to change a menstrual pad to a state-issued pad in front of two female guards. The state pad leaked, staining her pants. Last year, private prison giant CoreCivic came to an agreement with two women who said they had to expose their genitals to prove they were menstruating a Tennessee facility. [Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg / Truthout]
The day after DOC announcement, amid an uproar, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, Brian Moran, said on Twitter that he had ordered an “immediate suspension [of the policy] until further review.” Moran said he understands worries about contraband, but “a number of concerns have been raised about the new procedure.” The policy, he said, would be suspended “until a more thorough review of its implementation and potential consequences are considered.” [Associated Press]
This about-face is a rare victory for advocates, who have grown accustomed to prison authorities using vague “security concerns” to justify arbitrary restrictions and demeaning procedures. Many facilities bar visitors from wearing an underwire bra. A former public defender told the Daily Appeal that one jail she used to visit wouldn’t allow highlighters. Another facility wouldn’t allow watches, even for lawyers, which, the attorney told us, “was awesome for time management.” Many federal facilities will not allow staples, requiring attorneys to remove every staple from every file. Several prisons in Indiana would not allow visitors to bring coats or jackets in, even in the winter. One jail banned nonlegal reading materials, so the former defense attorney would print New Yorker articles out and smuggle them in, to have something to read while she waited to see her clients. Many facilities across the country have cited security concerns in halting in-person visits altogether.
Visitors are not the only victims of arbitrary security concerns. Incarcerated people bear the brunt of these restrictions. Earlier this year, the New Jersey prison system came under fire for banning several books, including The New Jim Crow by legal scholar Michelle Alexander. The state Department of Corrections claimed that the book “posed a material danger to the safety of inmates and employees.” Following a public outcry, the prison reversed the policy, but books continue to be censored in prisons across the country. Texas prisons ban approximately 10,000 titles. Last year, two Mississippi prisons banned soft-cover books. In 2013, Connecticut banned various publications for “safety and security” reasons, including nine issues of the Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights newsletter and an issue of Slam magazine that featured LeBron James on the cover. In 2011, prison officials at a facility near Montgomery, Alabama, denied a man access to the book Slavery By Another Name, under regulations that allow bans on books that could “incite violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.” [Andrea Jamison / Intellectual Freedom Blog]
Meanwhile, Trump administration policies are creating actual security concerns at federal facilities across the country. It cut hiring in an effort to reduce the size of the government, resulting in some prisons “so pressed for guards that they regularly compel teachers, nurses, secretaries and other support staff to step in,” the New York Times reported in June. At the same time, populations inside federal facilities have reversed the downward trajectory they experienced under President Barack Obama. The Justice Department now expects the population to grow, and President Trump’s administration is adding to that burden by transferring immigration detainees to federal prisons. “On a recent rainy day,” the Times reports, more than 400 people incarcerated at a Texas federal prison weathered a storm in a three-story building. “Two guards were on duty. One was a uniformed correctional officer, the other a health worker in civilian clothes pitching in because there were not enough regular officers. Outside, along the security fences surrounding the sprawling prison campus, a worker who normally offers counseling to inmates patrolled in a vehicle, armed with three weapons.” [Danielle Ivory and Caitlin Dickerson / New York Times]