The Virginia Department of Corrections came under national scrutiny in September when visitors learned they would not be allowed to wear tampons or menstrual cups, citing them as an apparent contraband risk. A FOIA request for a more thorough explanation of the tampon ban - through policy documents and a log of contraband incidents alluded to in the Times - revealed a two-month wait of rejection, denial and, finally, the single-page document behind the ban.
The Virginia DOC came under national scrutiny in September when visitors learned they would not be allowed to wear tampons or menstrual cups - cited as an apparent contraband risk in a short memo shared on Twitter
Pretty bummed to hear that Sussex II, prison I visit Stephen, has implemented a "no tampon" rule. It is just another way I feel the DOC has hold over me. I will follow their rules to be with him. I get treated like an offender with no rights even when I have never broken a rule! pic.twitter.com/sb94zzmeCj— Jana #VACFSY (@JanaVACFSY) September 24, 2018
That brief memo was met with coverage in the New York Times and a widely circulated petition that explained just how miserable DOC makes visiting prisoners. While the outcry eventually forced officials to walk it back before it was implemented, a request for a more thorough explanation of the tampon ban - through policy documents and a log of contraband incidents alluded to in the Times - revealed a two-month wait of rejection, denial and, finally, the single-page document behind the ban.
The department began by rejecting my request outright, relying on Virginia’s ability to deny records to out-of-state requesters. While many agencies have at some point used this statue to hopefully bat away requesters, few do so without first asking for residency verification.
What followed was two months of back-and-forth on the two parts of the request. A month after asking for a log of tampon-related contraband incidents, I was finally told that none of the 65 pages of records would be released because they involved records relating to a crime or prisoners. An important distinction: the DOC has “discretion” in such instances, and was choosing secrecy.
It took another four days for DOC to produce visitation procedures, with redactions. Neither document offered actually addressed the proposed tampon ban.
Two weeks of silence, then MuckRock’s helpful agency reminder bot prodded them to say:
One must try to keep one’s cool when one is dealing with prying information from government bureaucracies. But one did get a little annoyed by this point. I pointed out the same issue, and also asked for FOIA log and talking points related to that Times story. That’s me being angry.
They claimed they had no talking points. Their FOIA log, however, offered a little more detail on whether my requests were being tossed in a trash can or sent along to people who might actually care.
This type of document is any FOIA-nerd’s favorite: the document of documents that shows you everything being requested, denied, released of an agency. This log revealed hundreds of threads. A common theme: Rejection. Out-of-state requesters were denied. One prisoner was denied because “offenders are not entitled to records.” Others included an allegation of visitor mistreatment and a request from someone who had ministered to death row inmates.
The log showed that the FOIA officer considered my original request closed. My request for talking points showed he did actually call someone and ask whether they existed. Also revealed was a similar tampon policy request that had been denied because the requester did not pay whatever fee had been requested.
Finally, a MuckRock auto-follow up convinced the DOC to actually figure out why they kept being bothered.
And here it is. While it isn’t much more detailed than the memo sent to visitors, it actually makes an even weaker case than DOC tried to make to the Times. These alleged incidents involving tampon contraband, of which there are apparently 65 pages that DOC refuses to release, did not factor into the decision to ban tampons.
Instead, this memo implies that tampons were banned simply because the new screening device can see them:
Just how creepy is this device? What did the manufacturer promise to get DOC to buy it? How much did it cost? Track the progress of a request for DOC’s contract with this manufacturer here.
During the hopefully shorter wait, feel free to re-file any request you see in the DOC’s FOIA log that was rejected because of residency restrictions.
Image via Bureau of Prisons