(WRIC) – Our Richmond sister station WRIC has been digging into policy violations at the Virginia Department of Corrections. Policy violations that block families from seeing their loved ones at state prisons. Some families said they were told to submit to a strip search or never come back.
“That’s not right and it wasn’t their policy,” says Republican Senator Mark Peake of Lynchburg.
Senator Peake has introduced legislation requiring the Department Of Corrections to start following the rules. He has been disturbed by the reports of prison visitors being threatened with a permanent ban if they didn’t get naked and submit to a strip search.
WRIC has uncovered multiple incidents. Several women, whose identity we are hiding, have shared their stories.
“Your choice is yes or no. And if you say no, you don’t get to come back,” says one visitor.
Another told us, “If you deny the strip search, they won’t let you visit you know. they’ll deny your visits permanently.”
It happened to a 73-year-old woman in Senator Peake’s district, prompting him to sponsor a bill that has already passed in the Senate.
“That’s what is amazing is how many stories have come out. It’s clear that’s what they have been doing. It’s not right,” Peake said.
The Republican’s bill would ban the strip search of minors and prohibit visitors from being barred from future visits if they refuse a strip search.
“My bill will put it into code so it won’t be up to a Governor or the head of the Department Of Corrections,” he explained.
Lisa Kinney, a spokesperson for the Department Of Corrections said in a statement, “While it is not Department of Corrections policy to permanently ban anyone based on non-compliance with a strip search, it’s clear there is confusion concerning its application.”
Documents show the confusion goes beyond verbal threats. The DOC has been putting it in writing, even when this person appealed supervisors told them “Due to your failure to comply, your visiting privileges have been suspended permanently.”
“Well, it is broad confusion and they better get it straightened out,” says Peake.
DOC says the strip searches are to crack down on the contraband. A DOC report released this month shows the number of inmates testing positive for drugs is on the rise. Yet, it also shows between December 2018 and November 2019 out of 157 visitors strip-searched, only 10 were caught with drugs.
Loved ones have also complained to WRIC that even when they agree to a humiliating strip search and they are cleared of contraband, they’re still denied a contact visit.
“They said I had to see him through. I said what’s the purpose of me constantly coming up here getting butt naked for y’all and I can’t see him,” another visitor said.
Peake’s bill would change that. It states if no contraband is found the visitor shall be allowed personal contact.
“It seems to me if you go through all of that it should disprove the fact that you are carrying contraband,” Peake said.
Senator Peake is also concerned about the drug-sniffing dogs misidentifying so many people with no contraband. He has another bill that would require the DOC to track the effectiveness of detector canines.
There are two other bills in the one in the Senate sponsored by Democrat Senator Joe Morrissey and another in the House sponsored by Democrat Delegate Lee Carter prohibiting the strip search of minors.
Anyone who has been incorrectly told they are permanently banned for this reason should reapply for visiting rights through the Department of Corrections website. DOC says they will quickly and thoroughly review their case.
One person who reached out to WRIC for help, just has their visiting rights restored today.
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