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Strip Searching Women Prisoners

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State-Sanctioned Sexual Assault: The Rally to Ban Strip Searches at Silverwater Gaol
Australia: Strip Searching Women is Routine in Australian Prisons (November 2020)
Police Had ‘No Idea’ About Strip Search Laws, Watchdog Finds (May 2020)
Report: Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police
Strip Searching Practices in Western Australian Prisons (March 2019)
Report: Inspection of Mary Wade Correctional Centre, by Inspector of Custodial Services
Custodial Operations Policy and Procedures: Searching Inmates

Overview

Pursuant to the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (NSW) (‘LEPRA’), police are entitled with the power to strip-search a person. Strip-searches are degrading, humiliating, violate the right of bodily integrity and contravene Australia’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT). Searches of this kind are routinely conducted in prisons, music festivals and on the streets.

Purpose of Strip-Searches

Strip-searches are carried out for the purpose of identifying and seizing contraband, and are also conducted based on the belief that strip searches increase security. However, there is no empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of strip-searches in finding contraband. For example, an examination of 6 months of strip-searches in Victorian women’s prisons found just 7 items of contraband out of 6,200 searches. Though, four of these items were tobacco related products, one was chewing gum, and two were unidentifiable and inconclusive. Additionally, as identified by Steven Caruana (OPCAT Network Coordinator), the belief that strip searches increase security is false and misguided and often endangers them, as seen through 10 correctional officers surveyed in Western Australia reporting that they have been assaulted while conducting strip-searches. 

Effect of Strip-Searches

The effects of strip-searches are significant and varied. They have the capacity to trigger traumatic memories of prisoners, with 45% of women in prison reporting that they experienced abuse by a partner the year prior to incarceration, and 49% of all female prisoners’ victims of some form of child abuse. Additionally, strip-searches exacerbate the disproportionate power of the state over prisoners, resulting in the immediate reduction of 

dignity of any relationship between prison guard and prisoner. An example of this is women being asked to remove their sanitary products in these searches. Further, for women subject to a strip-search, the involuntary response of victims of abuse can be to shut down, become immobile, or refuse to be searched at all. This can be interpreted as a form of retaliation, subsequently resulting as a prison offence which carries penalisations and hinders a prisoner’s chances for parole. On a broader scale, strip-searches at music festivals and in public have been unlawfully conducted with a lack of privacy provided, degrading and inappropriate comments made by officers, and the search of minors without a guardian present.

Current Law and Existing Limitations

Currently, LEPRA authorises strip-searches upon ‘reasonable grounds’ of necessity, urgency and existing circumstances. With the criteria of ‘reasonable grounds’ undefined and vague, strip-searches are conducted inconsistently and are therefore an arbitrary use of power. Additionally, police are permitted to use ‘reasonable force’ in conducting strip-searches. With this also vague, strip-searches are subject to further vulnerability, as evident through the common practice of individuals required to partake in demeaning conduct such as ‘squat and cough’ or bending over. 

Our Demands

In order to remedy the current inefficacy of strip-searches, we demand the following:

  • That routine strip searching of women prisoners is brought to an end
  • Corrective services apologise and compensates women they have assailed
  • The state government ends the wide-spread strip-searching practices by police in custody, music festivals and on the streets
  • Body scanners are introduced to replace invasive strip-searches

Related Resources

Steven Caruana in Gregoire, P 2020, ‘Strip Searching Women is Routine in Australia’, Sydney Criminal Lawyers, 4 November, viewed 9 November 2020, https://www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au/blog/strip-searching-women-is-routine-in-australia/. 

Gregoire P 2020, ‘State-Sanctioned Sexual Assault: The Rally to Ban Strip Searches at Silverwater Gaol’, Sydney Criminal Lawyers, 20 November, viewed 20 November 2020, < https://www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au/blog/state-sanctioned-sexual-assault-the-rally-to-ban-strip-searches-at-silverwater-gaol/>. 

Human Rights Law Centre, Total Control: Ending The Routine Strip Searching Of Women In Victoria’s Prisons (Report, 2017) 20 < https://static1.squarespace.com/static/580025f66b8f5b2dabbe4291/t/5a287bb50d9297f066fd588d/1512602586016/TC+Report_Online.pdf>. 

Women in Prison Advocacy Network (2015), “Ceremonies of Degradation: Strip-Searching in Women’s Prisons”, Issue 9, Court of Conscience 8, 9 < http://classic.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/UNSWLawSocCConsc/2015/2.pdf>. 

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