WARREN, Maine — After nearly half a dozen women complained about having to remove their bras to visit the Maine State Prison, the Maine Department of Corrections said Monday that it would change the policy immediately.
The Bangor Daily News inquired about the practice last week, and on Monday morning department Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick said that he will work to standardize the prison’s vetting of female prison visitors and no longer require them to remove their bras, as some have been required to do recently.
“I own it,” Fitzpatrick said Monday. “It’s not going to happen anymore. There’s got to be a middle ground where we can be respectful and still maintain safety and security.”
Stacy Venable of Malvern, Pennsylvania, was one of a handful of women who contacted the BDN in February about having to remove their bras in order to gain admittance to the prison to visit inmates.
Venable has been traveling to the prison a few times a year for the last seven years to visit her nephew. When she entered the prison on Feb. 11, her bra, which had no underwire, activated the metal detectors. They didn’t pat her down, as the guards had done twice before. Instead, Venable was told that she would have to remove her bra in the bathroom in order to enter.
She refused, shaking with anger, and instead waited in the lobby while her sister and niece went inside without bras.
“There’s a line I don’t cross, it’s called integrity,” Venable, a 54-year-old veteran of the U.S. Air Force, said last week. “I’m not taking my bra off to go into an all-male prison.”
Venable said that after she got home that night, she filed a complaint the Maine Human Rights Commission, wrote emails to Warden Randall Liberty, Commissioner Fitzpatrick, and sent an email to Gov. Paul LePage’s office, complaining about the incident. Other than receiving an email from the governor’s office notifying her that her message had been received, Venable didn’t hear back from anyone.
Venable’s niece, Letitia, who lives in Searsmont and has requested that her last name not be used, for fear of retaliation, visits the prison weekly to see her husband. She said she removes her bra begrudgingly because, otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to see him. Her 16-year-old daughter, Lori, who is her husband’s step-daughter, does the same.
“It’s noticeable,” Lori said. “You’re exposed, and you’re in a room with sex offenders and pedophiles. It’s embarrassing and it’s scary.”
The same thing happened to Alice Gagne, 47, of Saco when she went to visit her son two weeks ago. Gagne, who wears an underwire bra, typically notifies the guards, and she is patted down. But at that most recent visit, she was told that being patted down was no longer an option. She would have to take her bra off and put it in a locker during her two-hour visit.
“I was very disgusted and appalled,” she said Thursday. “I shouldn’t be told I can’t wear a personal undergarment somewhere. I didn’t feel it was right that I be denied a visit to see my son if I had this bra on. Why couldn’t my bra be searched and given back to me?”
Gagne said she didn’t want to contact anyone from the prison, worried that questioning prison rules might result in retaliation against her visitation rights or treatment of her son, whom she visits weekly. Venable’s sister, Fern Ward, said she has worried about the same thing.
“Everybody’s worried about not getting their visit, [because] the more you complain, the more you’re kicked out,” said Ward, who chose to remove her bra in order to visit her son. “Men can wear their underwear. Why can’t we wear our bras?”
The bra-removal policy isn’t unprecedented in Maine. In 2015, two lawyers were visiting their clients at the Cumberland County Jail in Portland and were told, because their bras activated the metal detectors, they would have to remove them to go inside.
Amy Fairfield and Gina Yamartino refused, and publicly complained about the incident, citing it as discrimination and harassment. Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce publicly apologized to Yamartino and Fairfield in a news conference and expressed a need to balance safety and security standards with the “interests of the general public.”
The state prison guidebook notifies visitors that they will be given “three attempts to successfully pass through the metal detectors.” Visitors have the option to remove items such as “shoes, jewelry, belts, etc.” that may set off the metal detectors. Bras are not mentioned as an item that may need to be removed.
Fitzpatrick said staff who don’t fall in line with the new standardized approach will be made examples of and held accountable. The biggest challenge will be to bring all staff into compliance so there’s consistency across the board, he added.
Last week, a staffer at the prison, who asked not to be identified and declined to provide his full name, denied to the BDN in the prison lobby that any woman visitor had ever been asked to remove her bra in order to gain entry.
Fitzpatrick said he is going to institute a more uniform approach by the week’s end to ensure that women wearing bras that activate the prison’s metal detectors be inspected, but “we’re going to do it respectfully.”
He said he wants to know if people who visit his facilities have bad experiences.
“Part of the way you change culture in an organization is you set the tone, lead by example and you address things,” the commissioner said, adding that while the prison “can’t sacrifice safety,” it can ensure it in a way that balances that objective with “human decency and respect.”
“If there’s a way to do this without putting our hands on the public, I’d like to do it,” Fitzpatrick said.
For Venable, what the prison has been doing amounts to harassment, plain and simple.
“What if the governor’s wife went in there and they turned her away? What if Sen. Susan Collins came and wanted to go in?” she asked.
“I’m taking a stance because this is the right thing to do,” Venable said, “to get this straightened out.”