Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia on Friday ordered the suspension of a policy that allows prison officials to strip-search children after an 8-year-old girl was told to remove her clothes before being allowed to see her father, an inmate.
"I am deeply disturbed by these reports, not just as governor, but as a pediatrician and a dad," Northam said in a statement. "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."
The child had gone to Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Virginia, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to visit her father when officials from the state Department of Corrections told her she would need to be strip-searched, The Virginian-Pilot reported.
The child had come to the prison with her father's girlfriend, Diamond Peerman, who is not the girl's legal guardian. Prison staff members asked the girl to strip after a dog trained to sniff out drugs had lingered on Peerman and the child while they waited in a line with other visitors, according to The Pilot.
The girl, who was not identified, asked Peerman what strip-search means.
"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 told The Pilot. "That's when she started crying."
The child agreed to take off her clothes and was allowed to visit her father, who saw her and Peerman through a glass partition, according to the newspaper.
Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman for the department, confirmed that the search had taken place. She described the incident as "deeply troubling" and a breach of department protocol.
The person who authorized the search of the child violated department policy stating that a minor cannot be searched without the consent of a legal guardian or parent, Kinney said.
"We sincerely apologize to this child and her family and will be taking immediate disciplinary action against the person responsible," she said in a statement. "We take this matter very seriously."
Kinney did not identify the staff member or say what kind of action would be taken. She said strip searches of children were extremely rare.
Prison visitors, including minors who are with their parents or legal guardians, cannot be searched by force but if they refuse, "they shall be denied entry into the facility," according to the state Department of Corrections' operating procedures.
Even if the child is accompanied by a legal guardian, the policy is coercive, said Bill Farrar, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
"You're telling a child that you don't get to see your loved one again, potentially ever, if you don't comply with this very invasive, very humiliating, very traumatizing search," Farrar said.
The searches must be done by a prison employee of the same gender. Visitors undergoing a search must remove all of their clothing, including wigs or dentures, and give them to the prison staff for inspection.
Once naked, visitors have to spread their legs, bend over, spread their buttocks and squat and cough, according to the policy.
Martin F. Horn, a former commissioner of corrections in New York City and secretary of corrections in Pennsylvania, said it was reasonable for prisons to have a policy of strip-searching visitors, even children, who have made prison employees suspicious.
"It's not unheard-of for people to take advantage of the innocence of children," said Horn, who now lectures at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "We've had drugs smuggled in the diapers of infants. Inmates and their confederates are ingenious and diabolical in terms of the lengths they will go to smuggle contraband into a prison."
The mistake in Virginia, he added, was failing to first offer the option of a noncontact visit, during which the child could see her father but not touch him.
"If you're going to give them a noncontact visit, it does obviate the need of the strip search for the 8-year-old," Horn said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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