Nan Vollette, a mental health counselor, knew working at the Portsmouth City Jail meant she was subject to searches. She figured she'd be subject to a pat-down, maybe.
Not in a million years, Vollette said, did she expect to have someone tell her to strip down for a visual body-cavity search.
"I don't think anybody would have expected that," she said.
Now she and eight other women - all employees of companies that hold contracts at the jail - have filed federal lawsuits against Portsmouth Sheriff Bill Watson.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which represents the women, said in a news release Monday that the searches were conducted as "part of an ongoing investigation of drugs being brought into the jail."
Vollette's suit, which also names other jail staff members as defendants, states that around April 22, 2011, -Watson "ordered that all civilian contract employees be subjected to a strip search and visual body-cavity search."
It states that "Watson did not have any individualized suspicion that any particular employee.... was carrying on or about their person any contraband or illegal item into or out of the jail or committing any crime."
ACLU lawyers said the jail's actions violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution regarding unreasonable searches.
Watson said Monday that anyone coming into the jail, including himself, is "subject to be searched like anybody else."
"If anybody doesn't like the policy, look for a new job," he said. "We're going to stop this contraband from coming into this jail."
According to Vollette's suit, she was told she would be barred from the jail if she did not submit.
Vollette was told when she arrived at work that all the nurses at the jail had already submitted to the search, she said. Vollette and the nurses worked for the same company: Correct Care Solutions.
She felt faint, she said, and told a jail staff member: "This is very invasive. I don't know if I can do this."
The jail employee told her she had been directed to escort Vollette out the door if she refused.
Afterward, Vollette went up to her office.
"And I just cried like a baby. I'm almost 60 years old, and I cried like a baby.
"I think we all feel that we were raped," she said.
Vollette said people asked her afterward why she didn't just leave.
"It is a very intimidating situation," she said.
She had started working at the jail just two months earlier, she said, and didn't want to be left unemployed again.
Along with Vollette, six nurses with Correct Care Solutions filed suit. They are Angelene Cannon-Coleman, Barbara Stokley, Yolanda Vines, HaShena Hockaday, Verita Braswell and Emma Lee Floyd-Sharp. Suits also were filed on behalf of Marilyn Scott and Donnetta Austin, employees of Aramark Correctional Facility Food Service.
Vollette said six of the women still worked at the jail but had their security clearances revoked Monday.
The lawsuit was filed Friday.
According to Vollette's lawsuit, one of the sheriff's officials who performed searches told her "now you know how the inmates feel when we do this to them."
The suits seek monetary damages ranging from $5 million to $20 million, according to David Morgan, a Richmond attorney working on the case.
The lawsuits also seek an injunction to prevent such searches from occurring again.
The search policy is posted on the wall at every entrance to the jail. Watson said that the search was done on some deputies, as well, and that searches on women were done by women.
He said deputies did not find contraband on anyone, possibly because word was out that they were strip-searching people.
"Once we did that one strip-search, seemed like the contraband just dried right up."
Watson said all jails do similar searches, but Portsmouth had not done any in a while.
"You come in my jail, you're going to play by my rules. It's pretty laid out," he said.
Rebecca Glenberg, legal director with the ACLU of Virginia, said the organization has not heard of similar cases.
"Often, people who have been subjected to this very demeaning kind of search would rather just forget about it than to report it," she said.
According to two of the lawsuits, including Vollette's, the women were told to take off their clothes, bend over and cough so a staff member could "peer into" their body cavities. Glenberg explained that the term "visual body-cavity search" means no one "put their fingers in anyone's cavities."
Paula Miller, a spokeswoman for the Norfolk sheriff's office, said such a search would never be performed on employees there.
The Norfolk jail has signs telling people who enter that they are subject to search at any time, but that means an external search, Miller said. Deputies might check their pockets, briefcases and bags, wand them or have them walk through a metal detector, she said.
Miller said the director of professional standards there put it best, saying you don't strip-search contract workers just because you suspect someone is bringing contraband into the jail.
"It doesn't work like that," Miller said. "There has to be probable cause, and it's not just aimed at a group of people."