The Virginia Department of Corrections announced it will enforce a ban on tampons and menstrual cups worn by visitors to Virginia correctional facilities, beginning Oct. 6.
Advocacy and lobbying group Prison Reform Movement broke the news Sept. 22 on its Twitter page, posting a picture of a letter from Nottoway Correctional Center Warden David Call — in which Call wrote that the use of tampons or menstrual cups are considered “an ideal way to conceal contraband.”
The ban has since been suspended after public backlash by individuals in the Commonwealth and other lobbying groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I have no idea why there was a change,” said Bill Farrar, Strategic Communications Director for ACLU of Virginia. “My understanding is that all people incarcerated in DOC facilities undergo a cavity check following any visitation — which would, presumably, catch any contraband that was being brought in and identify who brought it. So, I don’t even see what the purpose of the policy is. What will it accomplish?”
Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said in a series of tweets Sept. 25 that the issue would be looked into in the meantime.
“I understand DOC’s precautionary steps to detect the rising threat of contraband, overdoses and even deaths among our offender population,” Moran tweeted. “I feel it appropriate to immediately suspend the newly developed policy until a more thorough review of its implementation and potential consequences are considered.”
Jacquee Oakes is a resident of Texas and a member of Facebook advocacy and support group The Original Virginia Prison Wives. Oakes’ husband has served time in Greensville Correctional Center in Greensville County, and has since been relocated to the lower-security Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County.
Oakes said an experience in March reflects what happens when menstruating women are expected to be concealing contraband — long before the ban was introduced.
“Humiliation and embarrassment was all I had left on me,” Oakes said. “They had me pull out my tampon, bend over — like spread open everything to make sure there was nothing still up there — squat, cough, all of that.”
Oakes was told that, as long as she underwent a strip search, she would be allowed to have a contact visit with her husband. However, after her strip and cavity search, the sergeant present determined she would no longer be able to go through with the visit that day.
“I was like, ‘wait, what do you mean? You told me that, as long as I go through with the strip search, I would still continue my visitation,’” Oakes said. “[The sergeant] said that any time they pull somebody out of line, they automatically lose their contact visit.”
According to the DOC Operating Procedure on Visiting Privileges, “if, after the initial search, it is believed that an additional search is necessary, a further consensual search, i.e. strip search or body cavity search, may be conducted … If no contraband is found, the offender visitor will be limited to and provided a non-contact visit.”
The sergeant allowed Oakes a one-hour video chat visit with her husband. When she eventually accepted the offer, she said she came to discover the video service was not working that day — so she walked out of Greensville unable to see her husband. According to subsequent phone conversations with her husband, Oakes alleged that inmates can sometimes face hostility after false suspicions are raised that their loved ones were trying to smuggle in contraband, which only added to her anxiety and disappointment over the situation.
“If you choose to leave, [the correctional officers] harass the inmate and shake their cells because they still think you were trying to bring something in,” Oakes said. “I came all the way from Texas for this visit — cost me hundreds of dollars to travel. All of this started because of a freaking tampon.”
VCU junior Alyssa Bernier, who visits her father at Deerfield Correctional Center in Southampton County, said this measure taken by VADOC is offensive and only further complicates the visitation process.
“In order to get visitation granted, you have to go through a semi-complicated application online and it takes weeks to get back to you,” Bernier said. “Then, to show up while you’re on your period only to be told you have to remove your tampon and wear a pad? Going to a prison facility to visit my dad is uncomfortable enough.”
Bernier also criticized the way VADOC seems to limit how people can dress, along with limits on physical contact with whom they are visiting.
VADOC enforces an extensive dress code in its visitation policy — from the types of clothing and shoes visitors can wear, down to “appropriate underwear.”
“The prison system has very strict rules on dress code and hugging [and] touching for people visiting loved ones,” Bernier said.
Farrar — the Virginia ACLU strategic communications director — also made a point that, from tampons to complicated policies, VADOC has many restrictions in place that could deter some people from visiting family and friends in prison.
“Generally, the department’s policies go a long way to discourage people from visiting their loved ones who are being housed in Virginia prisons,” Farrar said. “And that’s very harmful because we know that maintaining contact with friends and family in the community is really important to being rehabilitated and being able to have a successful re-entry [to the outside world].”
It is still unclear whether the tampon and menstrual cup ban will remain in place past Oct. 6. Lisa Kinney, director of communications, and Greg Carter, community relations coordinator, from VADOC have not responded to requests for comment as of publication.
In the meantime, Oakes playfully suggested a way to protest the ban among her Virginia prison wives group.
“I think we should all band together and all go in there on days that we all are menstruating, and then just make a biohazard out of their visitor room,” Oakes said. “They want to give people flimsy, crappy pads that have us leaking all over the place — let’s just leak all over the furniture if that’s what they want.”
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