Strip searching women in prison

Your rights

There are strict rules surrounding strip searches of female prisoners. These rules regulate the circumstances under which female prisoners can be strip searched and how they may be searched. If officers do not follow standard procedure, the strip search will be considered unlawful.

The policy setting out the correct procedure is PSI 07/2016 and can be found here.

"Searching of the person" sets out different procedures for male and female prisoners. More restrictions apply to searching female prisoners. It was just one of the recommendations of the Corston Report, which was commissioned after six women took their own lives at HMP Styal over a 13 month period. It is increasingly accepted that a huge proportion of women in prison have suffered abuse and that strip searches can have a 're-traumatising' effect.

There are also restrictions on strip searches of visitors to prison, both male and female. Bespoke searching procedures should be agreed for transgender prisoners.

Grounds for a strip search

Women cannot be strip searched (or 'full searched', to use the Ministry of Justice's terminology) as a matter of routine. There must be supporting intelligence or reasonable suspicion that they are concealing an item that may be revealed by the search. The lead officer should explain the need for the search to the woman being searched.

Before requiring a woman to take her clothes off, officers must use less intrusive options, including different levels of rub down searches and a handheld metal detector. Some prisons also have drug dogs and BOSS chairs ('Body Orifice Security Scanner' which is a sensitive metal detector you sit on to detect metal items like mobile phones hidden on or inside women).

A manager must authorise the strip search where it is a targeted search, as long as time allows authorisation to be obtained. Records must be kept of all strip searches.

Restrictions on strip searching

Strip searches of women must only be carried out by two female officers and must be out of sight of others.

Prior to a full (or 'Level 2') strip search, female prisoners must be subjected to a Level 1 search which involves the removal of clothes except for the woman's underwear and bra. A hand held metal detector must be used and a gown must be provided so that the woman can appropriately cover herself.

A Level 2 search may only follow if, once the Level 1 search has been completed, there is intelligence or suspicion that the prisoner has concealed an item in her underwear or if items have been discovered during Level 1 of the search.

At no time must a woman be completely naked. The top half should be searched first. The bottom half should be searched second. The robe should allow the woman to cover the other half of her body.

Under no circumstances must women be asked to squat. Neither should staff physically intrude into the person's mouth.

Once a woman has removed her clothes, staff should not touch her. However, they may use 'reasonable force' if strictly necessary; whether force is either necessary or reasonable will often be hotly disputed.

Staff should be sensitive to women who are on their period. They must not remove or ask women to remove tampons. Staff may ask women to remove sanitary towels. However, these must be disposed of in an appropriate container and the woman must be offered a replacement.

Saunders Law - Protecting & Enforcing Our Clients' Rights

Ceri Lloyd-Hughes is currently acting for 46 clients unlawfully strip searched in a women's prison. The majority were searched on a number of occasions and some had force used against them. Other members of the team have successful settled individual claims. If you or a loved one have been unlawfully strip searched in prison, contact our experienced team today on 020 7632 4300 or make an enquiry.


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