Strip searching is ineffective

Strip searches are not an effective method of locating contraband. Out of almost 900,000 strip searches conducted on prisoners in the past five years, only 571 contraband items were found. In other words, contraband was only found less than once in every 1,500 strip searches.

Strip searching is harmful

Strip searches are humiliating and degrading, and research shows that they can cause harm. This is particularly true for people who have experienced trauma or abuse which is common among prisoners. Almost half of the staff responding to a survey we conducted as part of this review had observed negative emotional responses from people being strip searched. Because of the harm caused, international standards and conventions seek to minimise strip searching.

Most strip searching is routine, not intelligence-led

Most strip searches are routine, procedure based searches, such as when a prisoner transfers from one secure location to another, and before and after visits. This has resulted in the excessive searching of prisoners, some of whom have been searched more than 200 times in a year. Very few (3%) strip searches are based on intelligence or a reasonable suspicion that the person is carrying contraband.

Visitors are also inappropriately strip searched

Compared to prisoners, visitors are strip searched relatively infrequently, and policy requires such searches to be well-warranted. However, two thirds of visitor strip searches were recorded by the Department as routine. In the case of child visitors, 90 per cent of strip searches were recorded as routine rather than intelligence based.

Modern technology provides viable alternatives to strip searching

Modern scanning technology is already proving to be as effective, and in some cases, more effective at detecting contraband. More importantly it is far less invasive and time consuming than conducting a strip search.

The Department has investigated some new technology but these investigations have been limited and did not examine transmission x-ray technology which is an emerging leader in the field. Many jurisdictions including the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Singapore, and Hong Kong are using or trialling the technology because it can detect metal, and organic and non-organic matter hidden internally and externally.

Reducing or eliminating strip searches has not increased contraband entering prison

Three facilities in Western Australia have significantly reduced or eliminated strip searches. There has been no increase in positive drug tests at these facilities. Nor has there been an increase in the detection of contraband through other searching methods, such as searching property and cells.

This suggests that reducing or eliminating strip searching has had no impact on the trafficking of contraband. It has however had a positive impact on the relationships between the people in custody and staff. This improves the safety of the facility. These findings are not unique to Western Australia. Pilot studies in Victoria and the United Kingdom have had similar results.


Page last updated: April 10, 2019