Back in July I blogged a post entitled Prison Psychology (1): The Importance of Small Victories. I wanted to continue the theme of the psychology of prison by exploring the subject of strip searches, particularly since this issue – along with prison showers – causes much anxiety for many people facing imprisonment for the first time.
|An everyday experience in the nick|
We’ve probably all seen prison-themed films, dramas or soap episodes on TV and, almost inevitably, there will be the strip search, either on first reception or as part of routine security checks. I suppose it is inevitable that being compelled to undress in front of complete strangers is something that looms large in most people’s psyche. It’s a bit like one of those nightmares in which the dreamer finds him or herself stark naked in a public place.
Every prison memoir seems to include the obligatory bit of institutional nudity. You can find it in books by Jimmy Boyle (who seems to have spent a fair amount of his sentence in the buff one way and another), Lord Archer, Jonathan Aitken, Denis MacShane… they have all felt compelled to share with us all the gory details of their enforced jail stripteases. I think that reflects the psychological impact of what can be a very humiliating and dehumanising process for many people.
|Aitken: he wrote about it|
Let’s face it, it’s never going to be pleasant to have two or more complete strangers ordering you to remove your clothing item-by-item so they can inspect your naked body, particularly your genitalia and anal region. Unless you happen to be an exhibitionist with a perfect physique, most of us are understandably a bit reticent about being seen bare-arsed naked, especially when you are the centre of attention.
Officially, there are various specific types of strip searches mandated under the National Security Framework and detailed in Prison Service Instruction (PSI 67/2011): Searching the Person. There are different levels of search dependant on the security category of the particular prisoner.
Those in the high security estate (A-cat prisoners) are subject to much more rigorous and intrusive procedures, mainly because the escape of such cons has the potential to cause a political earthquake and no secretary of state or prisons minister really relishes the prospect of standing up in the House of Commons to explain why some notorious terrorist or child murderer has legged it from a high security nick or from a prison vehicle while in transit.
Having been an inmate in Cat-Bs, Cat-Cs and a Cat-D (open prison), I’ll confine myself to the run of the mill rules for non-Cat-As. What are called “full searches” (ie strip searches) take place on initial reception to a prison; on transfer between prisons (both on the way out of the old jail and on the way in to the new one); on return from court; on return from Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL); during cell searches (what cons call ‘pad-spins’); before Mandatory Drug Testing (MDTs) and after having had a social visit (although this is often only a handful of inmates selected, in theory, at random).
Some strip searches are mandatory (such as initial reception or most inter-prison transfers), while others can be done completely at random. Many are ordered ‘on suspicion’ (that is a screw suspects that a particular con has something he or she shouldn’t have hidden about their person, which is sometimes the case).
|Prison E-list suit: for escapers|
Of course, if you have the misfortune of being on the E-list (an escaper), then you get the full knackers-out, cheek-spreading experience pretty much every time you leave your pad (cell), as well as spending much of your time when banged-up behind your door without clothing. When you do get to dress, it’s in a fetching green and yellow patched clown outfit (dubbed a ‘banana suit’ by fellow cons). I get the impression that much of this targeted treatment is as much designed to humiliate and punish would-be escapers for extended periods of time, than it is to do with actual prison security.
Inside the nick, the majority of personal searches are routine ‘pat downs’ when returning from work or education – to check for stolen equipment or other contraband. Given the large number of cons and the small number of screws, especially in Cat-C prisons, an amazing amount of contraband does pass through the prison every day, ranging from drugs to almost any other small portable object that can be concealed down underpants or in socks.
According to PSI 67/2011, these “lawful and effective procedures in place for the searching of prisoners, visitors and staff” are designed to ensure that:
• escapes are prevented;
• threats to the security, order and control of the establishment are detected and deterred;
• crime is detected and deterred;
• the number of illicit and unauthorised articles present in establishments is reduced;
• harm to self and others is reduced;
• searching contributes to a safe and decent environment by being proportionate to the risk assessed.
|"Raise your arms..."|
It is worth noting that even prison staff (including civilian workers and governors) can be subject to searches, although it happens much more rarely than the searching of prisoners. Any member of staff who is suspected of being bent and smuggling in contraband items to cons can be on the receiving end of a right going over by his or her colleagues from the prison security department.
Personal experience of strip searches can vary. I’ve been in nicks where it is a relatively quick and painless routine procedure. “Stand on the rubber mat. Remove your upper clothing and hand each item to me. Raise your arms and turn around. Put your upper clothing back on. Now remove your shoes and socks. Hand them to me. Now remove your trousers and underpants. Hand them to me. Turn around. OK, you can get dressed.” Less then five minutes and no total nudity.
Of course, there are some refinements. Male prisoners can be ordered to lift their genitals and, if uncircumcised, to retract their foreskins. Cons can also be required to squat while semi-naked (occasionally completely naked) and have their anal regions inspected by screws equipped with a mirror on a pole. It can all be a bit humiliating, really.
|Mirror to check those awkward bits|
I’ve written in another blog post about a particular screw at one prison who was alleged to be carrying out his own unauthorised genital examinations, complete with lewd sexual comments, particularly targeting younger lads after they had had family visits. Eventually he disappeared from that establishment, probably because fellow screws had dobbed him in to the governor. Good riddance, too.
My only really unpleasant experiences with strip searches were in a really crap Cat-B prison which is regularly criticised by HM Inspectorate of Prisons for its awful conditions and poor treatment of cons. On initial reception I was made to strip completely naked (against the rules, but I wasn’t in a position to argue) in an office in front of three very arrogant screws who kept me naked with my arms and legs spread-eagled while they shouted questions at me, including asking whether I had ever had sex with another prisoner in my previous nick (the answer was no) or whether I intended to do so at their prison (again, the answer was no).
Despite the rules that state personal searching should be done ‘respectfully’ and out of sight of other cons, reception orderlies were wandering round and having a good snigger. I wasn’t the only victim of this treatment and I had the distinct impression that this was all about deliberate humiliation and the screws putting newly arrived cons in their place right from the beginning.
|Enough to make your eyes water|
It was also at this establishment that my pad-mate and I were subjected to a very humiliating strip search during a pad-spin when the screws were searching for a missing pair of 12-inch cloth shears from the tailoring workshop (where neither of us worked). It was clear that these screws weren’t really looking for foot long shears in our anuses or foreskins… it was all about giving me a hard time because of my support for fellow cons during governor’s adjudications and because I was regularly getting prisoners off of these nickings, much to the irritation of both wing screws and their mates down in the security department. It was all about payback.
To be honest, having been in boarding schools, the Army, an all-male college at university and a playing member of a local rugby club for years, as well as a gym regular, a bit of male nudity really doesn’t faze me at all. I’ve been through many dozens of them during my time in the slammer. I’ve even sampled the joys of a strip cell (where you are stripped completely naked and given a blue quilted anti-suicide blanket to wrap around your nude loins). My only real objection was that the cell down in the Block (segregation unit) was a bit chilly, especially when your feet are always bare.
|A bit chilly down the Block|
However, I am aware that for some prisoners, particularly those who are in prison for the first time, or who are young or have been victims of sexual assaults as kids (as a significant number of cons have been), then these strip searches can be deeply disturbing experiences, especially if they are done in a way that feels abusive or are made to be deliberately humiliating. Having a dodgy screw making lewd and inappropriate comments about your penis size isn’t calculated to make the procedure any less traumatic for vulnerable inmates and as an Insider (peer mentor) I’ve had to deal with the fallout and obvious distress when young lads have been mistreated in that way.
Recent policy changes to reduce the amount of routine strip searching that takes place in custody, particularly of children and teenagers, are to be welcomed. In most cases, there is little real justification for two reception strip searches, both when a prisoner in a closed prison leaves one prison and a second full search when he or she arrives at another. Surely one strip search ahead of departure should be sufficient for most cons, since they will be travelling in a locked cubicle in a secure ‘sweat-box’ (prison transport van) throughout their transfer.
|A handy little bag of puff|
At the other extreme, in many Cat-Ds (open prisons), security can be incredibly lax. There just aren’t enough screws to search every single con going in or out of the gate each day on ROTL, voluntary work in the community or paid employment. At some Cat-Ds, drugs, including so-called legal highs, come in under the radar almost every day, along with porn DVDs, alcohol and mobile phone SIMs. A fair number of cons do get caught in possession of contraband eventually, but equally, a great many don’t and a lot of money can be made.
In fact, the honest truth is that most serious contraband – particularly drugs and mobile phones or SIM cards – is concealed in orifices where no legal strip search is going to find it. Experienced smugglers and those cons who have been in and out of the nick many times before know all the moves, so much of the routine searching is pretty pointless anyway. Indeed, if these methods were effective, maybe our prisons wouldn’t be awash with drugs (legal and illegal), as well as illicit mobiles. As they say in the USA, “just do the math”.