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Update: Va. suspends ban on tampons in prison

Had announced ban on tampon use by visitors, fearing smuggling

The visitors entrance to Greensville Correctional Center in southern Virginia. The state's prison system will soon prohibit entry to visitors who are using tampons or menstrual cups. (Steve Helber/AP)

Update: Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran announced Tuesday that he is suspending the ban on tampon use by visitors to the state’s prisons. The ban was revealed Monday, and provoked some critical response from civil rights advocates who said it harmed both prisoners and their visitors.

On Twitter, Moran wrote that while he understood the state Department of Corrections' “precautionary steps to detect the rising threat of contraband, overdoses and even deaths among our offender population,” he noted that “a number of concerns have been raised about the new procedure.” He said it was appropriate to “immediately suspend the newly developed policy until a more thorough review of its implementation and potential consequences are considered.”

Original post, Monday, 5:35 p.m.: Visitors to Virginia’s prison system will be prohibited from using tampons or menstrual cups inside the facilities to reduce the possibility of smuggling contraband, state corrections officials said Monday. The prisons will offer pads for use during visits.

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A memo by state corrections operations chief A. David Robinson to the prison wardens said that new full-body screening systems at the prisons have “effectively captured multiple images of hidden objects on the person of staff, volunteers and visitors,” and that raised questions “about feminine hygiene products being an ideal way to conceal contraband.” The new policy was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

As a result, Robinson wrote, visitors will be notified that tampons and menstrual cups may no longer be used during visits. Women who use the items and are caught on the body-scan machine will not be allowed to visit inmates, and those visitors will have their visitation privileges reviewed.

“There have been many instances,” state corrections spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said in an email, “in which visitors have attempted to smuggle drugs into our prisons by concealing those drugs in a body cavity, including the vagina.” She said pads, which are used externally, would be offered to visitors so that tampons “don’t appear as possible contraband on a body scan.”

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Kinney noted that “offenders in Virginia have died of drug overdoses while inside our prisons. It’s our job to keep the offenders and staff as safe as we can.” She said the policy was devised after consulting with the office of Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D). The starting date of enforcement was left up to the warden of each institution, Kinney said.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, criticized the policy. “Any policy that discourages visitors is,” Gastañaga said, “one that should be subject to the most exacting and careful review. In addition, a policy like this one that requires those who wish to visit people who are incarcerated to set aside their dignity and health is simply unacceptable.”

The ACLU called on Department of Corrections Director Harold Clarke to immediately clarify the policy and “to reverse any policy or practice that limits the visitation rights of visitors who are menstruating without regard to which hygiene product they choose to use.”

Note: This story originally said inmates would have privileges reviewed if a violation occurred. It is visitors who will be reviewed.