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UPDATED: Virginia backs off plan to ban prison visitors from wearing tampons

Violators detected by a body scanner could have their visitation privileges revoked.

The entrance to Greensville prison is seen on September 23, 2010 in Jarratt, Virginia. CREDIT: AFP PHOTO / Edouard Guihaire / Getty Images
The entrance to Greensville prison is seen on September 23, 2010 in Jarratt, Virginia. CREDIT: AFP PHOTO / Edouard Guihaire / Getty Images

UPDATE: The Virginia Department of Corrections backed off its plan Tuesday to ban visitors from wearing tampons inside state prisons. Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety, tweeted that the state would put the policy on hold “until a more thorough review of its implementation and potential consequences are considered.”


Virginia plans to prohibit visitors to the state’s prisons from wearing tampons and menstrual cups, citing concerns that contraband could be concealed in feminine hygiene products.

Lisa Kinney, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Corrections, told ThinkProgress the statewide policy comes in response to “many instances” in which visitors have attempted to smuggle drugs using menstrual products.

“The policy regarding visitors’ body cavities aims to keep contraband from entering prison facilities,” she said in an email. “If someone chooses to visit a Virginia Department of Corrections inmate, he or she cannot have anything hidden inside a body cavity. There have been many instances in which visitors have attempted to smuggle drugs into our prisons by concealing those drugs in a body cavity, including the vagina.”

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The policy, which will take effect next month, was first reported when Nottoway Correctional Center’s warden wrote a letter last week to the prison’s offenders and visitors. According to the letter, anyone found to be wearing a tampon would be prohibited from visiting the prison that day and potentially into the future.

“Offender visitors who have been recognized by the body scanner machine having a foreign object that could possibly be a tampon and has failed to remove such item prior to being screened, will have their visitation terminated for the day and will have their visitation privileges reviewed,” the warden wrote in the letter.

Kinney said the DOC consulted with the state attorney general’s office and determined that facilities would offer women menstrual pads while visiting the prison and would use body scans to determine if visitors were violating the policy.

“When potential contraband is seen on a body scan, visitors are offered the choice of a strip search or leaving the facility without visiting with an inmate,” she said. “This policy aims to help visitors avoid that altogether.”

The letter was initially shared by prison reform advocates on Twitter and prompted outrage on the internet. One Twitter user pointed out that the DOC finds it easier to “police women’s bodies” than to investigate their staff who may be bringing contraband into the prison.

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Prison guards in Virginia have been caught in the past smuggling drugs into state prisons for gang use. In November 2016, prosecutors arrested at least four former DOC employees who were gang members or associates and who conspired to bring drugs into several state prisons.

In July, a Virginia woman plead guilty to smuggling drugs into a state jail where she volunteered, testing detainees for HIV.

When prisons have attempted to control tampon use in the past, courts have found the practice to be illegal. In March 2017, private prison operator CoreCivic reached an agreement with women who filed suit after a CoreCivic prison in Tennessee ordered them to remove their tampons or sanitary pads to prove they were menstruating and not trying to smuggle in contraband, according to the Associated Press.

The measure, when it goes into effect next month, comes less than four months after implementation of a measure approved by the state legislature in February, requiring the state’s jails and prisons to provide inmates with free pads and tampons.

The bill was part of a package of legislation to make menstrual products more affordable and accessible, according to the Washington Post.

“Women don’t have a choice as to whether or not they have a period,” said Virginia Delegate Jennifer B. Boysko (D), who reintroduced a bill to exempt menstrual products from Virginia’s sales tax. “This is a fairness issue.”