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Virginia Governor Suspends Policy Allowing Strip Searches Of Children At Prisons

Va. Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Friday that he is "deeply disturbed" by reports of a young girl being strip searched at a corrections facility last month.
The Washington Post
The Washington Post via Getty Im
Va. Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Friday that he is "deeply disturbed" by reports of a young girl being strip searched at a corrections facility last month.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Friday that he is suspending a policy that permitted correctional staff to perform a strip search on an 8-year-old girl last month as she was trying to visit her father.

The incident took place days before the Thanksgiving holiday at Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, about a 75-minute drive west of Richmond.

The girl was "stripped naked and searched" by correctional staffers, according to The Virginian-Pilot, which broke the news of the strip search incident on Thursday. It said the girl, "was led to believe refusal would result in not being allowed to see her father."

Northam, a Democrat, announced via Twitter Friday that he had ordered a suspension of the policy along with an "immediate investigation."

"I'm deeply disturbed by these reports – not just as Governor, but as a pediatrician and a dad. I've directed [Virginia Public Safety and Homeland Security] to suspend this policy while the Department conducts and immediate investigation and review of their procedures," he tweeted.

The Virginian-Pilot also reports, the father's girlfriend, Diamond Peerman, who drove the girl more than two hours from the Hampton area, was the one who was initially singled out by contraband-detecting canines.

"The dog singled out Peerman, requiring that she be strip searched. Peerman asked if the 8-year-old would need to be searched, too. Initially, prison guards said no, but after consulting with a captain, that decision was reversed," Peerman told the paper.

In an email to NPR Friday, Lisa Kinney, the director of communications for Virginia Department of Corrections said "we sincerely apologize to this child and her family."

Kinney explains that Virginia's protocol states "only a parent or legal guardian can approve a search of a minor."

Peerman, who signed the consent form for the girl, was neither.

"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 ... will be taking immediate disciplinary action against the person responsible," Kinney wrote.

She noted that strip searches are requested after a K-9 has "alerted on a visitor" but visitors have the option to refuse the search and leave the premises.

As part of its original report, The Virginian-Pilot published a series of text messages it says are between the girl and her mother following the incident.

The texts, dated Nov. 24, started with the girl saying she was angry the jail made her take off her clothes and how it made no sense to her.

Her mother shot back a text saying: "What call me."

In later texts, the mother asks, "Did they make you take your pants off ?" The girl responds, "Yes all of my clothes off."

The paper is withholding the names of the girl, her mother and the father, but the mother told the paper that her daughter had missed school because of the ordeal.

"She's a minor, she's a girl. She was traumatized," the mother said. "She gets emotional, she will break down."

The ACLU of Virginia tweeted on Thursday "those responsible must be held accountable."

"No child should ever be subjected to invasive, humiliating, traumatizing strip searches carried out by strangers to see their loved on in prison," the organization said.

"Those responsible must be held accountable and [Virginia Department of Corrections] policy must be changed so this never happens again," the ACLU said.

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Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.