By Dick Hall-Sizemore
The Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) finds itself in a classic dammed-if-you-do, damned –if-you-don’t situation. On the one hand, it is facing a surge in illegal drugs coming into its prisons, enabled by drugs that are increasingly difficult to detect. On the other hand, it is facing popular and legislative outrage at some of the steps it has taken to stanch the contraband coming into prisons.
Tampons. There is a history of prison visitors bringing in contraband, including illegal drugs, concealed in their body cavities. DOC has body scanners in many prisons, but these devices cannot distinguish between a tampon and a cache of drugs inside a body cavity.
To enable it to reduce the volume of drugs coming into its prisons without having to strip search every female visitor for which a scanner showed a mass, DOC instituted a policy in the fall of 2018 prohibiting any visitor from using a tampon or menstrual cup inside a prison. The department said that it would provide a feminine hygiene pad for use during visits.
Not to be left out, the 2018 General Assembly weighed in on the issue, enacting legislation directing DOC to “review” its policies on visitors’ wearing of tampons and menstrual cups and “revise such policies to permit” the use of such products and to report back to the legislature. (It is not clear why DOC had to review the policies if the legislature had already determined the outcome.) In its report to the General Assembly, DOC gave up, saying it would not regulate the use of these products by visitors.
Strip searches. Inmates and substance abusers can be very ingenious. Aiding this ingenuity is the increased difficulty of detecting illegal substances. For example, suboxone can be delivered on thin, almost transparent film strips. Fentanyl can be dropped onto blotter paper.
Inmates and visitors are known to use children to smuggle illegal drugs into prison. Corrections officials have told me that they have found illegal drugs hidden in a baby’s diaper.
DOC policy allows prison officials to strip search any visitor whom they have reason to believe is carrying contraband. Their basis for the strip search can be canine alerts, body scan findings, or intelligence received by prison officials.
Last fall, a drug dog alerted on a woman, accompanied by an 8-year old girl, who had come to visit an inmate at Buckingham Correctional Center. The girl was the daughter of the inmate and the woman was his girlfriend. The woman was told that, unless she and the girl were strip searched, they could not see the inmate. Furthermore, they were told that, if she refused to consent to a strip search, visitation privileges would be permanently suspended. Faced with this choice, the woman complied and both she and the child were strip searched. No contraband was found.
This incident also generated much negative publicity for DOC. The Virginian Pilot ran an initial story and, then, earlier this year, a follow-up story, setting out the experiences of another visitor who was strip searched. This time it was the Governor who stepped in, ordering the suspension of the policy that allowed a strip search of minors. That move made the New York Times.
During this controversy, DOC did not help its cause. First of all, officials repeatedly denied it was department policy to ban permanently future visitation upon the refusal to submit to a strip search. However, the press found at least five DOC documents that referred to a permanent ban. Earlier this year, DOC’s chief of operations stated that, if a person refuses to undergo a strip search when requested, the current policy calls for an indefinite suspension of visiting privileges that can be reviewed after two years. Technically, that is not “permanent,” but, in effect, it can be permanent at the discretion of DOC.
A spokesman for DOC was quoted by both the New York Times and the Virginian-Pilot as saying that strip searching a minor was “extremely rare.” However, data later provided to the Pilot revealed that 16 minors had been strip searched since 2017. That is about 2.6 % of all strip searches performed during that period. Although the data on the total number of children visitors is not available, the percentage who were strip searched would undoubtedly be much lower.
DOC officials pointed out that departmental policy prohibited the strip search of a minor without the permission of a parent or legal guardian. In the case of the 8-year old girl, that policy was violated by the officials at the prison because the adult accompanying the child was not a parent or legal guardian. Disciplinary action was promised.
Finally, although these reported strip searches failed to turn up any contraband, the visitors were still restricted to non-contact visits. A contact visit was denied, a department official explained, because the strip search had only been visual and there was the possibility that contraband could be hidden in a body cavity in such a manner that it would not be visible.
Again, the General Assembly feels that it needs to tell DOC how to manage security in its prisons. SB 1089 is now in conference. Both houses would ban strip searches of minors, but they differ on the age for a complete ban. Also, the Senate version of the bill would prohibit DOC from denying visitation for any person on the basis of a prior refusal to consent to a strip search.
The Problem. DOC is fighting a battle against drugs in its prisons and it has been losing recently. It issued a report early this year documenting this battle. Among the findings:
- The percentage of offenders testing positive for illicit drugs steadily increased from 2015 to 2019, from about 6.5% of those tested in 2015 to 10.6% in 2019 (2,207 individuals).
- The number of drug overdoses increased from 41 in 2016 to 80 in 2019. There were a total of 238 drug overdoses over the period 2016-2019.
- During 2016-2019, there were 222 emergency medical transports due to suspected use of drugs or alcohol. (A medical transport is a trip to a hospital and is expensive. It also ties up two correctional officers for most of a day, at least.)
- There were 12 inmate deaths from overdose from the years 2016-2019.
- In the most recent 12-month period covered by the report (December 2018 to November 2019), there were 88 incidents in which visitors were caught attempting to bring drugs into prison. Of this group:
- 10 had been strip searched.
- 3 females had illicit drugs hidden in their genitals.
- During 2019, 17 staff members were caught attempting to bring illicit drugs into a prison.
Illicit drugs are not the only contraband with which corrections officials have to cope. Cell phones smuggled to inmates have long been a problem.The recent availability of tiny, cheap ($40 on Amazon) devices has made detection harder for all prisons. A DOC official told B.R. that the agency found 26 mini-cell phones in prisons in 2019. Of course, they do not know how many they did not find.
From my soapbox. Maintaining connections with family is important for the successful re-entry of an inmate into society In its 2019 report to the General Assembly, DOC emphasized the role of visitation and stated its continuing support of contact visits.
At the same time, the motto on the agency seal is “Public Safety First.” Drugs in prison pose a danger not only to inmates; prison staff are also at risk. For example, in 2018, 27 corrections staff members in Ohio became ill due to exposure to a combination of heroin and fentanyl while treating an offender who had overdosed.
With the pending passage of legislation prohibiting the strip search of minors, the General Assembly will make it easier for inmates and their collaborators to make unwitting mules of children to bring drugs into prison. If the administration and the legislature continue to thwart DOC efforts to reduce the influx of drugs into prisons, the agency, despite is commitment to visitation, may be forced to allow only non-contact visits. Then, everybody would lose.There are currently no comments highlighted.