PORTSMOUTH -- Nine women are suing the Portsmouth Sheriff's Office saying they had to strip and then were searched for drugs.
Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed lawsuits Friday for the women, who were contract workers for Correct Care Solutions or Aramark Correctional Facility Food Service.
The lawsuit says Sheriff Bill Watson ordered the searches in late April 2011 as part of an ongoing investigation of drugs being brought into the jail.
'They were not forced to do anything,' Watson told 13News. 'When you enter the jail, there's signs on every entrance door that comes into the jail when you pass by this door, you're subject to search. They see that sign every day.'
Watson contends the searches are in line with the jail's policies and procedures, recognized by Virginia Department of Corrections, and explained in the contract the jail has with its contractors.
'They're subject to be searched at any time for any reason, and they must submit to it or they're clearance will be pulled,' Watson explained.
ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg said in a news release, 'This sort of bodily intrusion is precisely what the Constitution is meant to prevent.'
Each woman claims they had to remove her undergarments and 'be subjected to a visual search of her cavities' and that if they didn't agree, they'd have to leave and couldn't return.
Dave Morgan, one of the attorneys handling the lawsuits, said the problem is there was no 'individualized suspicion,' which he contends is necessary for a visual body cavity search to be performed. Morgan explained the sheriff and his staff acted on a general tip that people with the jail's vendors were smuggling contraband into the building. Had they gotten specific information about a specific worker, there would not be an issue.
'If you don't want to be searched or you don't like this or that, then you don't need to be working at the Portsmouth City Jail,' stated Watson. 'I'd do it all over again, and if the ACLU comes in here and wants to look at the jail, they're subject to be strip searched, and if they don't want to do it, then they're not coming in. It's that simple. The rules apply to everyone equally.'
The workers are seeking monetary damages and a court order preventing searches like that in the future.
A few of the plaintiffs no longer work at the jail. Those who do had their clearances pulled Monday. Because they work for an outside company, Watson told 13News that company would assign them to other facilities.