Virginia Women’s Prisons Force People to Remove Pads, Tampons During Strip Searches

Women told The Appeal they found the routine practice degrading and dehumanizing. Prisons around the country have long humiliated people for menstruating.

TitiNicola via Wikimedia Commons

Virginia Women’s Prisons Force People to Remove Pads, Tampons During Strip Searches

Women told The Appeal they found the routine practice degrading and dehumanizing. Prisons around the country have long humiliated people for menstruating.

During strip searches in Virginia prisons, people who are menstruating must remove their tampon or menstrual pad in front of corrections staff, according to five formerly and currently incarcerated women who communicated with The Appeal.

“No matter how much you’re bleeding, whether you’re dripping on the floor, it doesn’t matter,” Stephanie Angelo, who was recently released from a Virginia prison, told The Appeal in a phone interview. “You still will be strip searched fully.”

When people menstruate, they can use tampons, menstrual pads, or both to collect menstrual blood. A tampon is inserted by gently pushing it into the vagina, often at a particular angle to minimize pain or discomfort. During insertion, some people prefer to sit on a toilet, or stand and put one foot up on an object, such as a toilet lid. Once the tampon is inserted, a string attached to the tampon, used to pull the tampon out, is visible. Removing a tampon can involve anything from painfully pulling out a dry tampon to dealing with a heavily blood-soaked one.

Women told The Appeal that they are sometimes not given access to toilets or sinks to wash their hands during or immediately after a strip search.

During strip searches, they must remove all their clothes, shake them out one at a time, and hand them to the guard, explained Shebri Dillon, who is incarcerated at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. They open their mouths and shake out their hair. The women are told to turn around, squat, and cough, and then they are ordered to spread their buttocks. If they’re wearing a menstrual pad or tampon, they have to remove it and are then provided a new one, according to women who spoke with The Appeal.

Strip searches are, ostensibly, conducted to look for contraband, which are items incarcerated people are not permitted to have, even if they’re legal in the outside world, like cell phones. However, numerous investigations of correctional facilities from across the country have shown that banned items are more often brought into jails and prisons by staff members than by visitors or imprisoned people.

In Virginia prisons, strip searches have occurred after someone returns from a work assignment (which may be in the prison or off-site), before and after visitation, before and after outside medical appointments, and during shakedowns, according to currently and formerly incarcerated women.

Shakedowns—which occur, at minimum, every few months—are when correctional officers search “every cell from top to bottom,” Leighann Cobb, who was released from Virginia Correctional Center for Women in May, wrote in an email to The Appeal. During shakedowns, officers look for drugs, but also for “altered clothing” (such as jeans that have been hemmed) or for more than the allowed number of sheets or bowls, according to Cobb.

“Basically they come in and trash the place,” she wrote.

Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) spokesperson Benjamin Jarvela wrote in an email to The Appeal that he “cannot get into the specifics of how” the searches are conducted. Such “security information,” he wrote, “can be used by inmates, friends, and family to determine ways to defeat those policies and introduce narcotics, weapons, and other contraband into secure facilities.”

The Appeal also asked how much contraband has been collected from incarcerated people’s vaginas, but that, too, “is included in the security operations information we are not commenting on,” wrote Jarvela.

Strip searches of incarcerated people must be performed by “two staff of the same gender as the inmate (or the desired gender preference of the present staff for transgender or intersex inmates),” he wrote. If a person is denied “access to hygiene facilities after a search,” the department encourages them to report that immediately, he wrote.

The department’s search policy for incarcerated people, which The Appeal obtained through a public records request, does not appear to specify if tampons or menstrual pads have to be removed during a strip search, although parts of the document were redacted. The policy does state that all items, including dentures and wigs, must be removed, and that the incarcerated person “will spread their legs; bend over, spread their buttocks, squat and cough, and raise arms, penis, scrotum, and breasts during the visual inspection.”

Women told The Appeal that they don’t believe removing tampons and pads is a necessary security measure and is, rather, indicative of a culture of dehumanization.

“It’s about degrading folks,” said BeKura Shabazz, founder and president of the Criminal Injustice Reform Network, an advocacy group in Virginia. “You don’t have to treat anybody in that manner.”

Dillon said she has not been strip searched while menstruating, but she once stood outside the door when another woman was told to remove her tampon. Dillon said she could not see what was occurring, but she heard the exchange between the woman and staff members.

“She begged not to have to pull her tampon out,” Dillon told The Appeal in a phone interview. “When she came out, her eyes didn’t leave the floor.”

Dillon said two women recently told her about an incident in which they began to menstruate and informed an officer they needed to return to their building to change their undergarments. The officer, she said, took them and a member of the kitchen staff who is not incarcerated into the “inmate bathroom, with the door cracked open, where other inmates could see in, and made them drop their panties.”

The department is aware of the incident and it is under investigation, Jarvela said.

Police officers, jail guards, and correctional officers have long used menstruation to humiliate and demean people. In 2011, correctional officers and cadets ordered hundreds of women in an Illinois prison to strip—including the removal of their tampons—as part of a cadet training exercise. In 2016, a San Antonio police officer removed a woman’s tampon during a search on a public street. Marshall Project reporter Keri Blakinger has written about menstruating while incarcerated in New York, including that sometimes people were made to remove their tampons during strip searches.

Inside Virginia prisons, degrading searches are part of an incarcerated person’s everyday life, according to the women who spoke with The Appeal.

Cobb said if she was menstruating during a strip search she had to remove her tampon in front of two staff members, show it to them, squat and cough, and then insert another tampon.

“It’s dehumanizing,” she told The Appeal in a phone interview.

In a letter to The Appeal, Julie, who is still incarcerated and requested that The Appeal not use her real name out of fear of retaliation, detailed the first time she was strip searched at a Virginia prison, about five years ago.

After she told the officer she was menstruating, the officer asked if she was wearing a tampon, and she said she was. The officer ordered her to “take it out,” and pushed a metal trash can toward her, Julie wrote. She removed her tampon and put it in the trash can. The officer ordered her to turn around, squat, spread her buttocks, and cough. Once the search was over, the officer gave Julie her bra and underwear, and, after she asked for a new tampon, she was given a menstrual pad. As the officer handed Julie a new uniform, she asked, “Are you going to leave that like that?” and told her to wrap up the bloody tampon.

“I had to reach into the trash can with my bare hands, retrieve the bloody tampon and roll it up in toilet paper before depositing it back into the trash can,” Julie wrote.

Since then, she’s been strip searched many times. After a strip search, she wrote, she often goes to sleep “to avoid, to forget what I’ve just been through.”

“You don’t get used to it,” she wrote. “You can only find better ways to cope with the emotional fallout each time.”

Anne, who is also currently incarcerated and requested that The Appeal not use her real name out of fear of retaliation, said that she feels “denigrated” when she is menstruating during a strip search. But the entire strip search process, she said, is mortifying, especially when they have to bend over and spread their buttocks. Sometimes officers laugh at them during strip searches, she said.

“The laughter part of it,” she told The Appeal in a phone interview. “It’s humiliating, and it makes you feel—like me, I’m aware of my self-worth, but not all women can say that, that they have self-worth.”

When asked to respond to these allegations, Jarvela wrote that laughing at an incarcerated person during a strip search “could potentially be harassment” and should be reported through the grievance process. Harassment during a search “falls under the auspices of the Prison Rape Elimination Act and would be investigated immediately,” he wrote.

The search practices described by currently and formerly incarcerated women in Virginia raise issues regarding both hygiene and mental health, according to Carolyn Sufrin, an associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and founder of Advocacy and Research on Reproductive Wellness of Incarcerated People.

“I would have concerns about the traumatizing impact that it has, in terms of someone’s dignity to manage their menstruation while being under surveillance,” Sufrin said.

Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women
Courtesy of Rob Poggenklass

In addition to incarcerated people, visitors’ and employees’ menstrual cycles are also under surveillance. In the summer of 2019, a Virginia prison warden fired a dental hygienist after a body scanner identified a foreign object in her vagina, which was her tampon. Last month she won a sex discrimination suit against the department of corrections. Jarvela told The Appeal in an email that the department has no comment on the verdict.

In 2018, the department announced that visitors to Virginia prisons would be banned from wearing tampons or menstrual cups. After public outcry, the policy was suspended before it even went into effect. Just a few months later, however, in January 2019, a department official told lawmakers in a hearing that people wearing tampons were being denied contact visits because “We can’t tell what’s in someone as they go through a body scanner.” Later that year, the state enacted a bill requiring the VDOC to create a policy that permits visitors to wear tampons or menstrual cups.

The state’s current policy on visitor searches, which The Appeal obtained through a public records request, details several authorized search methods, including frisking, to detect contraband. (Some parts of the policy were redacted.) If an officer feels an “unnatural object” while frisking a visitor and the supervisor is “in doubt about the identity of the item,” the person will be offered a 55-minute video visit, according to the policy. The visitor can also elect to have a strip search. In this section the policy states that visitors will not be asked to change or remove adult diapers, “feminine hygiene products,” or medical devices.

The policy also states that if a visitor goes through a body scanning device and there’s an alert that cannot be “explained satisfactorily” they will be offered a 55-minute video visit. The VDOC confirmed that these video visits are provided free of charge.

Susan (who requested that The Appeal not use her real name to protect an incarcerated loved one from retaliation) said in an email that when she went for a visit in July an officer told her that her tampon showed up as an “anomaly” on the body scan. She was allowed to have a face-to-face visit only after she removed her tampon and went through the scan again.

“There’s so much I could say about this and so much that’s wrong with it,” she wrote to The Appeal. “But the DOC does what they want to because they don’t have to answer to anyone, there’s no oversight, and no one holds them accountable.”

Susan wrote that before each visit she has to undergo an extensive search. In addition to going through a body scan, she has to remove her shoes, and an officer inspects the inside of her mouth. To use the restroom during a visit, she has to leave the visitation room and then get scanned again before returning.

“I understand there’s a contraband issue,” she wrote, but “clearly the problem doesn’t lie with the visitors.”

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