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For Wearing Tampon, Virginia Woman Says She’s Barred From Prison Visits

A Virginia woman says state prison officials terminated a visit with her husband and accused her of attempting to smuggle drugs with a tampon days after the state suspended a policy that would have banned women from wearing the feminine hygiene product to visits.

Weeks later, according to the woman, her visits were unofficially suspended indefinitely as officials continue to investigate the package.

The woman, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation from prison officials, said a Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) administrator told her she was one of several women who had their visits terminated that day (although a friend who was in the visitation room with her said she did not see anyone else dismissed). She told Shadowproof she felt like she was targeted because she was on her period.

The Virginia DOC did not return requests for comment on the alleged incident and visitation privileges. It posted a vague tweet on October 3 about drugs being found in the bathroom of one of its facilities but a spokeswoman did not disclose further details on the statement.

The confrontation marked the latest incident in which officials used contraband to exert their power over incarcerated women and visitors’ periods.

Several formerly incarcerated women and their loved ones spoke to Shadowproof about this practice, painting a picture in which menstruation is used to humiliate, shame, and create fear among imprisoned and visiting women.

The Virginia woman went to visit her husband on the weekend of September 29. She had visited her husband every weekend for the last five years and was familiar with the screening process, she said.

After passing through the body scanner, a guard asked her if she had underwear on. “Yes ma’am, I’m on my cycle,” the woman replied. The guard then told her that she was not allowed to wear a tampon, referring to the recently suspended policy that forbid women visitors from wearing tampons or menstrual cups.

The woman informed her that the policy had been suspended and the guard apologized, taking her into a room to check under her bra. After being cleared, she visited with her husband.

At one point, she left to use the restroom, passing through the body scanner again before entering the visitation room. A guard came in minutes later to tell her the visitation was terminated without explanation.

Outside, she said a prison official approached her and read her Miranda rights, making her sign a statement confirming she was read her rights. He told her that officials were investigating a package that was found in the bathroom that had blood on it, she said.

“He said, ‘I just want you to know I know where you live, and I know people in the District Attorney’s office and we’re gonna press charges,” she told Shadowproof.  Her body scan had come up as irregular, he told her. She offered to show the guards that she was menstruating but they declined.

“I would have consented to a strip search. I have nothing to hide,” she said. “They targeted me because they knew I was on my period.”

She was ordered to leave the property and hasn’t returned in three weeks. Initially, her husband’s counselor told him that his wife’s visitation privileges had not been revoked but then last week, an official advised him that she should not come up until the investigation is over. After that, her friend told her that her visit had been denied due to the investigation when she went to visit her husband last weekend.

The woman said she planned to bring her daughter to see her husband this weekend before she learned that she could not return. “Y’all don’t realize what stresses it put on my life, affecting my marriage, affecting my health,” she shared. “What they did to me is so traumatic.”

The visit termination came after the Virginia DOC issued a memo on September 17 outlining a new policy in which women would not be permitted to wear tampons or menstrual cups to visits.

If a woman was found to be wearing a tampon or “possible contraband” after going through the X-ray body scanner, she would then be given the choice between a cavity search or leaving the facility without visiting her loved one, corrections department spokeswoman Lisa Kinney told Shadowproof.

After consulting with the Attorney General’s office, officials decided the best way to keep contraband out would be restricting women from wearing tampons or menstrual cups and offering them pads instead, Kinney said.

“I was like, this is ridiculous, another rule to make us not want to come back,” said one woman, who read a policy memo in the Nottoway Correctional Center’s waiting room before visiting her loved one. She spoke to Shadowproof on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation by prison officials.

The policy was suspended days later and “until a more thorough review of its implementation and potential consequences are considered.” Kinney did not answer questions from Shadowproof on what the review would entail.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, the vice president for development at the Brennan Center for Justice and author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equality, pointed out that the policy was yet another tactic to discriminate against women and their menstrual cycles.

Officials dramatically inflate the price of tampons, making them a luxury that only those with money can access. The Federal Bureau of Prisons now offers free tampons and pads, but roughly 91 percent of women are housed in state prisons and local jails, just a few of which have made the feminine hygiene products accessible to all.

“It’s kind of the worst case scenario of an environment that doesn’t consider women’s needs,” Weiss-Wolf said. “Nobody should have to beg or barter for [feminine hygiene products], nobody should have to be subject to an unfair power dynamic to take care of themselves.”

One formerly incarcerated woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said that periods were a lasting source of trauma for her during her time at Minnesota’s Shakopee Correctional Facility.

The strip searches after visitation meant that guards would know that she was on her period, making her a target for guards to rape her since they thought she could not get pregnant while menstruating.

“When I had my period, I would ask visitors not to come see me,” she told Shadowproof. “I had to make a choice.” She added, “The whole time you’re sitting in your visit, and you knew this is what’s coming.”

The conditions fueled eating disorders, which also came with the “added bonus” of not getting her period, she said.

For the 18 years she was incarcerated, she paid $7 for a 10-pack box of tampons. Each month, she was given 20 pads. Sharing was forbidden, and those who gave away their pads risked going to solitary confinement. During lockdowns, she was deprived of showers for days at a time, she said.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections did not return requests for comment on these claims.

Keri Blakinger, a journalist who was previously incarcerated at New York’s Taconic Correctional Facility, said women prisoners were asked to take out their tampons and show them to the officers after their visits.

“The thing is, when you’ve done a little bit of time you’re so used to policies that initially might feel absurd,” she told Shadowproof. “I can’t even really remember people griping about it. I think it was sort of accepted that this is the reality of doing time.”

Patrick Bailey, a spokesman for the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, denied that any such policy has ever existed in any of its prisons. However, it is not uncommon for officials in individual prisons to make their own policies independent of corrections department administration.

In 2015, Tennessee-based private prison contractor CoreCivic insisted that it was standard procedure when they demanded two women show their genitals to prove they were menstruating while visiting a private facility.

A woman, who filed the lawsuit under “Jane Doe” due to its personal nature, was told by a male guard, “But I’ll have to make sure you are” after she informed him that she had a pad on because she was on her period.

Despite offering options that would not include showing her genitalia, such as urinating into the toilet without flushing or showing her used pad, a female officer was summoned to inspect her vaginal area. The two women filed a federal lawsuit that was settled for an undisclosed sum in 2017.

After the memo announcing Virginia DOC’s policy spread online, critics, including inmate advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union, condemned it, arguing it would discourage visitors from seeing their loved ones.

While the woman who was formerly incarcerated in Minnesota cheered the policy’s suspension, she contended it is also necessary to take action to help incarcerated women who are affected by similar policies.

“They’ve been doing this to the incarcerated forever,” she declared.“Women get shoved to the side and abused. Nobody’s cared.”

Lauren Gill

Lauren Gill

Lauren is a freelance journalist covering criminal justice.