DILLWYN, Va. — Virginia prison officials are under fire and the governor has suspended a state policy after a guard overstepped his authority last month and ordered an 8-year-old girl to be strip searched during a visit to her imprisoned father.
The Hampton girl’s ordeal took place Nov. 24 when she accompanied her father’s girlfriend on an hourslong trip to Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, where her father is serving time. The girlfriend, Diamond Peerman, told The Virginian-Pilot that a drug-sniffing dog focused its attention on her and the girl as they entered the prison.
Department of Corrections policy allowed guards to deny visitation to anyone who refused to be searched, the newspaper reported.
Peerman said she began crying when she realized refusal to comply would mean the girl could not see her father. She told the girl she would have to be searched as well, she said.
The girl asked what a strip search meant.
“I told her, ‘That means you have to take all of your clothes off or you’re not going to be able to see your dad,’” Peerman said. “That’s when she started crying.”
Prison officials have admitted that the search violated state policy. The guard who ordered the search did not have the authority to do so and is subsequently facing disciplinary action, according to CNN.
“The incident is deeply troubling and represents a breach in our protocol,” Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said in a statement to CNN. “We sincerely apologize to this child and her family.”
The violation of policy occurred when the captain required that Peerman sign a consent form allowing the search. Peerman said she explained to prison officials that she was not the girl’s legal guardian, but they demanded she sign the consent form anyway, the Pilot reported.
DOC policy requires that a parent or legal guardian sign the consent form, CNN reported.
“Our procedure states that only a parent or legal guardian can approve the strip search of a minor; in this case the adult visitor who signed the consent for the minor to be strip searched wasn’t the minor’s parent or legal guardian,” Kinney said in an email to the Pilot. “The staff member who authorized the search of the minor following a K-9 alert didn’t have the authority to do so. We take this matter very seriously and, as mentioned above, will be taking immediate disciplinary action against the person responsible.”
Gov. Ralph Northam responded to the incident last week by putting a halt to the strip search of minors visiting state prisons.
“I am deeply disturbed by these reports, not just as governor but as a pediatrician and a dad,” Northam wrote. “I’ve directed the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security to suspend this policy while the department conducts an immediate investigation and review of their procedures.”
Virginia Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, also tweeted Friday that he is drafting legislation barring strip searches of anyone under 14 and requiring parental consent for searches of children ages 14 to 17.
Northam said Monday that he hasn’t made a final judgment about the outcome for the policy, according to WTVR in Richmond.
“I suspect it will be in the area that no minor will be strip-searched in Virginia," the governor told the news station.
Critics, including officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, characterized prison officials’ actions as draconian.
“We would characterize that as a highly coercive policy,” Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications for ACLU of Virginia, told the Pilot.
The organization said in a statement on its Facebook page that DOC officials’ apology to the girl and her family was insufficient.
“No apology could undo the damage done to a child being subjected to the humiliation and trauma of unnecessary strip searches,” the statement said.
“No child should ever be subjected to invasive, humiliating, traumatizing strip searches carried out by strangers in order to see their loved one in a state prison,” ACLU officials said. “Those responsible must be held accountable, and the Virginia Department of Corrections' policy must be changed to ensure this never happens again.”
Martin F. Horn, executive director of the New York State Sentencing Commission and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agreed.
“It seems to me the prison had options available to them that were less intrusive and that those would be preferable,” Horn told the newspaper. “Policy or not, there is never a circumstance where a child should be subjected to invasive, traumatizing, humiliating searches by a stranger, whether or not they’re trying to get to a loved one who is incarcerated. That should never happen.”
Both Peerman and the girl were required to strip naked, bend over and cough during the search, the Pilot reported. Peerman said afterward, as a female corrections officer handed the girl back her clothes, piece by piece, she asked, “How old are you, sweetheart?”
“I just looked at her and I’m like, ‘That’s not even appropriate to be asking her right now,’” Peerman said. “Why would you ask that when she’s naked?”
Before they were allowed to visit the girl’s father, Peerman’s car was also searched. No contraband was found either on them or in the vehicle, but prison officials curtailed their visit with the inmate anyway.
They were denied a contact visit and were only allowed to visit him through a pane of glass, Peerman told the Pilot.
The girl texted her mother immediately after the visit.
“Hey, Mom, am so mad. The jail had to strip me with all of my clothes off. This doesn’t make (sense),” the girl wrote in the text, provided to the Pilot by her mother. The woman is not being identified to protect her daughter’s identity.
“What? Call me,” the mother wrote back.
“OK,” the girl responded.
“Did they make you take your pants off?” the woman asked.
“Yes. All of my clothes off,” her daughter responded.
“Make sure your daddy call my phone,” the mother wrote.
The woman told the Pilot her daughter was traumatized by the incident. The girl, who suffers from bipolar disorder, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has missed school since the ordeal.
“She’s a minor, she’s a girl. She was traumatized,” her mother told the newspaper. “She gets emotional, she will break down.”
The woman said her daughter would no longer be visiting her father at the prison.
“Her and her dad have a good relationship because she gets to go see him every weekend," the mother told the Pilot. "But, at the same time, she went through something that traumatized her. I’m not sending her back there.”
Peerman told the newspaper that the governor’s suspension of the policy is a good thing, but that the search of her boyfriend’s daughter never should have happened.
“There’s no reason for them to strip search a child,” she said.
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