Virginia Department of Corrections Confirms Visitation Not Primary Means of Contraband Introduction
by Kevin Bliss
The Virginia Mercury reported this year that the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that a vast majority of contraband being introduced into the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) has not been coming from visitation as indicated by the Department. Statistics show stopping visitation did not have the effect of reducing incoming contraband by the expected amount.
The article said that the VDOC focused overwhelmingly on prisoners’ visitation as the primary means of contraband introduction into prison facilities. Starting from that flawed perspective, draconian visiting rules were implemented. The VDOC began requiring prisoners to be stripped, searched and changed into state issue underwear and jumpsuit in 2017. After their visitation was over they were again subjected to a strip search and clothing change.
The following year, the VDOC stated women could not wear tampons to visitation when menstruating. The Department had picked up a new type of body scanning device which could detect contraband hidden in body cavities and a tampon gave a false positive reading.
Spokeswoman Lisa Kinney emphasized the VDOC’s position with a comment she made at that time. “There have been many instances in which visitors have attempted to smuggle drugs into our prisons by concealing those drugs in a body cavity, including the vagina,” she said. Interestingly enough, no such protocols were ever instituted for menstruating female guards entering prisons.
This policy was challenged as intrusive and abusive by prisoners and their families and friends. It was soon rescinded yet officials maintained a policy which required women wearing tampons to restrict their visitation to no-contact visits through a glass partition or by video feed.
The VDOC limited a prisoner’s visitation list to no more than ten people last year. The intent was purportedly to prevent prisoners from getting visits from “mules” simply to drop off drugs. Moreover, this policy was immediately followed by one that called for the strip searching of minors. Lawmakers promptly banned this practice but attempted to justify it nonetheless. “They’re ingenious,” stated Brian Moran, Secretary of Public Safety. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Yet activists say that statistics during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown reveal a different story. The VDOC logged 871 drug seizures last year, down 10% from 2019’s 967 seizures. This in a time when prison populations in the state had fallen nearly 20%. Overdoses fell from 87 to 45 and positive drug tests increased .4% (again during a time of decreased population).
The VDOC could not provide statistics on the introduction of contraband by any staff or discipline resulting therefrom. The only statement given concerning staff’s involvement in contraband introduction was that immediate action would be taken and the commonwealth attorney notified for possible charges.
Several retired and active VDOC guards and other personnel have spoken out against the quantity of drugs that come into the prison by staff. Low pay, low morale, and lax security contribute to the facility of staff smuggling drugs into the prisons. “Think about it, basically they send you through a metal detector—a lot of places you don’t have to take off your shoes it’s just a pat down,” stated one sergeant. “People just tape it somewhere.”
Shawn Weneta served 16 years in prison. He said it has always been the guards who have brought in the vast majority of contraband into prisons. “The reality is and always has been that the overwhelming majority of contraband that enters prisons comes through staff,” he said. “It was just a known fact, part of the everyday thing—like speeding on the highway.” It apparently takes guards and staff to state the obvious.