NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) - The Portsmouth Sheriff and four other jail officials are named in nine lawsuits, claiming they performed illegal searches of contract workers. Nine women say they were forced to strip naked and subjected to visual body cavity searches at the Portsmouth City Jail.
Attorneys for the ACLU of Virginia filed the lawsuits Friday in Norfolk federal court. The documents state that Portsmouth Sheriff Bill Watson ordered the searches in April 2011 as part of an investigation into drugs being brought to the jail.
"The work that I do I really love," said Nan Vollette. Vollette worked at the Portsmouth jail for just over a year. Her job was a psychotherapist and she says it was an important one.
"I see to those with mental health issues," Vollette added.
"I run a substance abuse group."
She had been on the job for just two months before she says she was searched on Good Friday in 2001.
"It was horrifying," she said. "It was humiliating and degrading. I work in a jail, I wasn't terribly shocked by a search," Vollette added. "I figured I would get patted down. Kind of goes with the job."
What happened next to her and eight other woman she says went too far.
"I was taken into a room and told to remove all of my clothing," Vollette said. "That didn't seem okay."
On the day of the searches, the plaintiffs claim they were told if they did not remove their clothes and consent to the cavity search, they would be forced to leave and their clearance to access the jail would be revoked.
"It was a really traumatic event," she told WAVY.com.
Sheriff Bill Watson now finds himself at the center of a legal battle. The women say the searches violated their rights.
"I guess they want [the women] to buy them roses and give it to them as they come through the door," Watson said.
"We're running a jail here and there's a lot of contraband coming in. We couldn't catch anybody and the minute we strip searched, the contraband stopped immediately."
The sheriff says there are signs at every entrance coming into the jail letting everyone know they can be searched.
"If they don't like the rules and regulations, then don't come in the jail," Watson added.
The ACLU feels as if the sheriff broke the law, but he says it's all about safety.
"If the ACLU comes in there, they will be strip searched too," Watson said.
"I feel raped," Vollette added. "There's no other word that fits."
Vollette and the other woman will soon have their day in court.
"I think the sheriff needs to held accountable," Vollette said.
"These are the most demeaning kinds of searches to which human beings can be subjected," said David Morgan, with Cravens and Noll, P.C. in Richmond and a cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Virginia, "and there was absolutely no legal justification whatsoever for them -- no individualized suspicion that any of these women were bringing drugs into the jail."
According to the lawsuit, Watson and the other defendants knew they needed individual suspicion of illegal activity for each person that was going to be searched.
As of Monday only six of the nine women were still working at the jail . WAVY.com spoke with several of them, including Vollette, who all say their security clearance was revoked Monday from the jail, meaning they are no longer allowed to work there.
The women are seeking money and a court order preventing the searches from occurring again.
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