WASHINGTON — Diamond Peerman drove 2½ hours the Sunday before Thanksgiving to take her boyfriend’s 8-year-old daughter to visit him at a state prison in Dillwyn.
When a drug-sniffing dog fixated on the pair, a Buckingham Correctional Center guard told them they had to submit to strip-searches or else they could be banned from the prison, Peerman told The Washington Post. The girl balked at the idea of removing her clothes in front of uniformed strangers.
“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 Virginian-Pilot, which first reported the search Thursday. “That’s when she started crying.”
The incident rang alarm bells for the girl’s mother, civil rights advocates and Virginia Department of Corrections officials, who said the decision to strip-search the girl without her legal guardian’s permission defied its internal policies. The incident also resurfaced a history of controversial strip searches, which have scared, punished and humiliated children in other cases.
After the Nov. 24 search, the girl texted her mother and shared her anger over being forced to disrobe.
“Hey Mom,” she wrote in a text published by the Virginian-Pilot. “Am so mad the jail had to strip me with all of my clothes off this doesn’t make no [sense].”
Her mom responded with disbelief.
“Did they make you take your pants off?”
“Yes all of my clothes off.”
The mother, who was not named to protect the identity of the girl, told the Virginian-Pilot her daughter has a good relationship with her father, but only because she can visit him every weekend. Now she says she will not send her child back to the state-run prison. The girl has missed school because of her distress over the search, which has exacerbated her symptoms from bipolar disorder, depression and ADHD, her mother told the newspaper.
“She went through something that traumatized her,” she said. “I’m not sending her back there.”
The prison’s policy calls for a strip search of anyone singled out by a drug-sniffing dog. Refusing to submit to the search can result in the person being turned away from future visits. But that policy also requires a legal guardian’s permission to strip-search a child, a DOC spokeswoman told the Virginian-Pilot. The agency said it was troubled that its guards forced the girl to undergo a strip-search without her mother present.
“It is deeply troubling and represents a breach in our protocol,” Virginia DOC Director of Communications Lisa Kinney told the outlet. “We sincerely apologize to this child and her family and will be taking immediate disciplinary action against the person responsible.”
Peerman told The Post a prison official called her on Dec. 2 to apologize, and let her know VDOC was investigating the incident.
Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday that he halted the policy that allowed the prison to strip search the girl and ordered an investigation into what happened.
“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.”
Civil rights advocates argue that strip searches can be traumatic for children and corrections officers should avoid asking minors to take off their clothes for searches, especially when the child is simply visiting a relative.
“No child should ever be subjected to invasive, humiliating, traumatizing strip searches carried out by strangers to see their loved ones in prison,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia tweeted on Thursday. “Those responsible must be held accountable & VDOC policy must be changed so this never happens again.”
The incident is not the first time a child has been improperly strip-searched.
In 2001, nine Washington middle-school students who had previously been suspended for misbehaving in class were strip-searched during a field trip to a D.C. jail intended to scare them about being arrested. At least one of the boys sued and won $150,000 in a 2003 judgment.
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an Arizona school’s strip search of a 13-year-old who was forced to take off her clothes and shake out her underwear during a search for prescription-strength ibuprofen. In Australia, police came under fire last month after revelations that they had strip-searched more than 100 girls, some as young as 12, while looking for drugs at music festivals and other popular events.
The Virginia DOC notes that it routinely catches visitors trying to smuggle contraband into its facilities, and law enforcement agents arrested a corrections officer last month after the prison employee allegedly smuggled drugs and tobacco in a body cavity. In September, the agency tightened regulations around who can visit prisoners to combat schemes to sneak illicit items into a prison.
The 8-year-old in Virginia was distraught when Peerman told her she had to choose between stripping off her clothes and not seeing her father anymore, Peerman told the Virginian-Pilot. She cried until two female guards led her and Peerman to a bathroom to perform the search.
The guards asked Peerman to strip first, then bend over and cough. Then, they asked the girl to do the same. The guards handed the 8-year-old’s clothes back to her one piece at a time, the newspaper reported.
As she was dressing herself, one of the guards asked the girl how old she was.
“I just looked at her and I’m like, ‘That’s not even appropriate to be asking her right now,’” Peerman told the Virginian-Pilot. “Why would you ask that when she’s naked?”
The prison guards did not find any contraband with the girl or Peerman.
After the officers were satisfied the pair did not intend to bring banned items into the prison, they were allowed to speak with the girl’s father through a glass panel. The girl was not allowed to hug her dad during the holiday weekend visit.