Guards at a privately run Tennessee prison strip-searched a woman visiting an inmate because she was carrying a menstrual pad, a new lawsuit charges.
After they noticed the pad in her pocket, the woman says guards told her she needed to prove that she was on her period and needed the pad. She offered to show them her used pad, or leave the extra one behind, according to the complaint. But the guards insisted that a female guard search the visitor’s genitals.
The visitor, who filed the suit under the pseudonym Jane Doe, says she asked the guard what she should do. “What do you think? Show me!” the guard is quoted as saying in the suit. The guard then “visually inspected [her] exposed genitalia and looked upon her vaginal area” until she was satisfied that the woman was indeed menstruating.
Corrections Corporation of America, the private company that runs the prison, does not have a policy specifically permitting feminine sanitary products, the lawsuit says, but guards told the woman the search is standard procedure, leading her to believe she will have to go through the strip search every time she visits the prison while on her period.
While Jane Doe’s case is a particularly invasive example, families and friends of inmates face routine hurdles to stay in touch with loved ones behind bars. The difficulties often multiply when private prison contractors are involved, as for-profit companies have a habit of scaling back services and charging families exorbitant fees to boost their bottom lines. The FCC recently cracked down on some of these companies, which were charging inmates and their families as much as $17 for a fifteen-minute phone call. Many states have also contracted with private prison banks that reap tens of millions of dollars a year by extracting enormous fees from families trying to send inmates money (the state often also takes a cut).
And, as in the case of Jane Doe, people visiting inmates often have to endure humiliating searches and interrogations. Prison officials are also allowed to randomly search visitors’ vehicles in many states. California recently stepped up visitor searches with some of the most draconian screening rules in the country, requiring airport security style scanners, drug-sniffing dogs, hand swabs, and strip searches in some cases. Refusing a strip search can get a visitor permanently banned from the prison. It’s also not uncommon for guards to arrest visitors if they suspect them of smuggling or if they are wanted on outstanding warrants (usually for minor offenses like missing a court appearance or probation appointment).
While prisons justify these searches as necessary to keep visitors from smuggling in drugs or other contraband, they are generally useless at keeping facilities clean. Drugs tend to be smuggled into prisons through prison staff — including many guards employed by CCA — as they are allowed to come and go with relatively little security.