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Human rights advocates demand end to strip searches

Queensland's human rights watchdog is urging an end to routine strip-searching of women in prisons.

Queensland's human rights watchdog is urging an end to routine strip-searching of women in prisons. Photo: AAP

Strip searches of female prisoners cause them to feel “violated, demeaned and dehumanised”, say rights advocates calling for an end to the practice.

The Queensland Human Rights Commission report has called for strip searches to be conducted as a last resort and demanded the introduction of alternative security provisions, including body scanners and saliva drug tests.

Strip searches visually inspect all parts of a person’s body, including the breast and genital regions, but do not include the more intrusive body cavity search.

The report’s authors interviewed Queensland prison inmates and staff, finding women were not always treated with respect and dignity during searches.

“The process of strip searching and urine testing is traumatic. I felt violated,” one prisoner said.

“I did not want people to see my body, but I was made to do it. It felt like I was being sexually assaulted – take your clothes off, do it now or else.

“I felt sick every time I was searched. How much lower can you be made to feel?”

The review also found while strip searches were considered a regular part of prisoner routine, the detection rate was “absurdly low”.

“Strip searches do not achieve their intended purpose,” Queensland Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall said.

“They have an absurdly low rate of contraband detection – successful in 0.01 to 0.015 per cent of searches – making them ineffective at improving prison safety and security.”

The report found the “demeaning and dehumanising” nature of strip searches undermined prisoners’ dignity, self esteem and chances of rehabilitation.

The searches were also potentially damaging to victims of sexual violence, with almost 90 per cent of prisoners being survivors of child sexual abuse or domestic and physical violence.

The review was conducted in collaboration with Queensland Corrective Services (QCS), with recommendations including strict limits on when a strip search occurs.

QCS has previously pledged to end the practice of removing clothing searches for women in custody.

“Most strip searches are conducted routinely, in the absence of reasonable suspicion and without individual risk assessments,” the report found.

The report recommends the installation of body scanners as an alternative.

“If the Queensland government is serious about addressing harm inflicted on all women, including the growing population of women in its prisons, it must make a substantial investment in alternative technologies,” Mr McDougall said.

“Body scanners and saliva swab testing present viable alternatives to strip searches and urine drug tests.

“These advancements in technology not only protect the human rights and dignity of prisoners but also contribute to a safer and more effective prison system.”

Sisters Inside CEO Debbie Kilroy called for a ban on strip-searching of incarcerated women.

“Strip searching is the sexual assault of women authorised and perpetrated by the state,” Ms Kilroy said in a statement.

“We want strip searching abolished immediately.”

Corrective Services Minister Mark Ryan said the QCS would consider the report’s recommendations, but he fully supported the efforts of correctional officers to preserve people’s safety, including “preventing the introduction of weapons and contraband”.

QCS was constantly evaluating new technologies and body scanners would be trialled next year at the the Brisbane Womens’ Correctional Centre, he said.

“But it’s important to reiterate that whatever measures and technologies are introduced to a correctional setting, the upmost priority is always upon the personal safety of corrective services staff and the prisoners in their care,” Mr Ryan said.

-AAP

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