Wednesday 24 September 2014

Prison Psychology (2): The Strip Search

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”. 


  1. Explain the Body Scanner thing, is it just for visitors to a prison?

    1. I'm sure Alex can add much more to my answer - I have been in two different B-cat local prisons, I only once had to sit in the scanning chair - on my initial reception. It's simply there to detect any objects that might be - not being crude - up you backside.

      I've made many visits to B-cat locals and have never been scanned in such a way. However they do employ airport like security checks. Everything is subject to x-ray, everybody is patted down (including children) and sniffer dogs check everybody.

      It's not a pleasant experience, just like flying, but to see your loved one it's well worth it.

    2. Thanks for your question and the answer above. The BOSS chair (Body Orifice Scanner) is basically a chair on which you sit to detect any concealed metallic objects in the body - primarily the anal area. It is routine in most prison receptions and supplements the strip search. However, it's fairly limited in that it cannot detect drugs concealed in rubber or plastic wrapping. It also can't detect the tiny plastic mobile phones that are currently advertised on eBay and elsewhere specifically as 'BOSS-busters'.

      In addition to prisoners, both visitors and prison staff can be asked to sit in the BOSS chair 'on suspicion' if it is suspected that they may be concealing contraband, particularly mobile phones. Most prisons also use a standard walk-through airport-style metal detector for prisoners, visitors and staff.

      During my recent social visit to see a friend at a Cat-B prison, I was patted down, my shoes and coat were put through an airport-style x-ray machine and I walked through a metal detector. However, I wasn't asked to sit in a BOSS chair.

  2. I had a few strip searches during my time but thankfully they were always dealt with correctly - never completely naked, usually my t-shirt was covering private areas and a level of dignity was retained.

    If I was hiding anything the strip searches I endured wouldn't have found anything anyway and so were completely pointless. To me it seemed an act of humiliation that didn't gain the security of the prison anything whatsoever.

    I had a couple of very bizarre strip searches - the first once on a hospital visit. I was strip searched before being double-cuffed (hands handcuffed together and handcuffed to and officer) to be taken to hospital, accompanied by another prison officer. I remained that way until I got back to the same prison I'd just left only to be strip searched again to make sure I hadn't secreted something about my person whilst not being out of sight, or attached to, two prison officers and they didn't notice.

    The most bizarre strip search was upon release, I had to reveal all to an officer to show I wasn't taking anything out of prison. I'm not sure what they were looking for - a prison t-shirt hidden in my foreskin or a £10 portable tv up my backside. It was just, to me, a final pointless humiliation.

    Thankfully, personally, I don't have body issues so to let a screw look at my privates isn't really an issue. I can imagine for so may it's incredibly humiliating and totally unnecessary. But it's all about mind control and humiliation and so such intimate - and pointless - searches will continue despite them having any real worth.

    1. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences. I agree that much of the routine strip searching that goes on is pointless and contributes little to security. I also think that you are correct when you raise the issue of 'mind control and humiliation'.

      As with my unpleasant experiences at the Cat-B described above in my post, I believe that the main purpose was to impress upon me that I was now the 'property' of the prison/state and I could be ordered to do humiliating things to demonstrate my submission and obedience to the system. I sometimes wonder if the idea is to see which cons resist or kick off right from the beginning, so they can be punished. Of course, anyone who refuses to strip is likely to be 'twisted up' (put into painful restraint) and then have their clothes cut off in a strip cell anyway.

      The discharge strip search is no doubt partly designed to see if anyone is nicking prison kit, but maybe it is also as a final 'goodbye' to show you that you are still a con right up to the gate. Funnily enough, when I was kicked out of my final prison (a Cat-D) with no warning, I wasn't searched, nor were my bags. I still have one prison t-shirt, a striped shirt and two pairs of jail boxers that were in my washing bag awaiting a trip to the laundry that never happened because of my release!

    2. I do recall one con who refused to pull back his foreskin during a strip search - he was given an official warning about his behaviour. It was maybe a sadistic attempt at humiliation or an actual act of sexually assault for the officers own gratification.

    3. Thanks for your comment. PSI 67/2011 does give authority for this kind of order if there is a suspicion that something may be concealed. However, as we all know 'suspicion' in a prison environment can be misused to justify all sorts of behaviour that has an ulterior motive, whether bullying, a desire to humiliate, sadism or some weird sexual thrill.

      When I was in the nick I recall reading a letter in an issue of Inside Time from a young prisoner at another establishment who was being treated like this by a specific screw after every single family visit. Like those cases at my own nick referred to in my post above, this lad clearly believed that he was being singled out for reasons that were nothing to do with security or contraband.

      The PSI doesn't give screws the legal right to handle a con's genitals, but I wonder what would happen if a prisoner genuinely suffered from phimosis (inability to retract his foreskin) and couldn't comply. I suppose they might call in a nurse from healthcare, but there is a risk of abuse in my opinion.

  3. You say "Experienced smugglers and those cons who have been in and out of the nick many times before know all the moves,..." Apart from shoving something up your bum, what "moves" do you know of?


    1. Thanks for your question, Peter. Well cons can be very ingenious. Other than the obvious 'packing' of gear, I've heard of contraband being concealed in specially adapted trainers, in the mouth, between the toes, behind the scrotum. A few have developed the ability to swallow a small package (usually drugs or a mini-SIM cared) and then make themselves vomit to order as soon as they are back in a cell.

      There just aren't enough staff on duty to do extensive checks on everyone, so for every con who gets caught with contraband, I'd guess that maybe another half-dozen get through. Some experienced screws pride themselves on their ability to 'read' prisoners' body language - nervousness, looking scared, not making eye contact, sweating - to spot traffickers. I gather that airport security staff get similar training.

    2. Have you seen a con concealing drugs within surgical dressing or down a broken leg/arm plaster?

    3. Thanks for your question. I've not come across this personally, although I'm sure it has happened at some time, somewhere. It is so easy to conceal small items and packages that most of the time the only people who get caught are complete numpties or specific individuals involved in the drugs/medication trade who have been 'grassed up' - often by other drug dealers hoping to muscle in on the wing market. There's not much honour among narco-cons!

  4. Hmmm oh dear! I get stopped by airport staff everytime I leave the country. I'm padded down and asked to remove my shoes *sigh* I reckon I will be on first name terms with them soon.

    1. Thanks for your comments. In fact, I found prison 'pat down' searches much less intrusive that some airport security checks. For most routine 'pat downs' cons don't even have to remove their shoes, so these aren't too bad. Going into prison as a social visitor seems to involve much more rigorous security searches.

      Although I've travelled extensively for work, I've never been subjected to a strip search at an airport, although I have heard of them taking place. I'm old enough to remember the good old days of flying when there were no checks beyond a quick glance at your passport!

  5. que interesante tema sobre registro de ropa, esto es para evitar las drogas ilegales

    1. Sadly, I'm not a speaker of Spanish... however, I'm sure this is a relevant comment! Anyone out there who can enlighten us? Google translator has let us all down...

    2. Translation is. Interesting topic record of clothes, this is to prevent illegal drugs

  6. What I am curious about is if it's true that during these strip searches, especially at intake, there are female staff present in some prisons.

    1. Thanks for your question. In my experience the answer is very definitely no, not least because that would be a serious violation of the Prison Service Instruction on full body searching. Same in a prison for women.

      Where I have seen problems is with other prisoners who are Reception orderlies being allow to wander round doing 'jobs' when lads are being strip searched. Occasionally a curious male screw might hang about even when he's not involved in the process... which does sometimes make you question their motives!

    2. So female guard walking around strip-searched prisoner at the beginning of "Starred Up" is film exploitation?

    3. Thanks for your question. Yep... I've watched the film and there are some unrealistic scenes at the beginning, including Jack O'Connell being made to stand around naked in the middle of Reception (which looked more like the ground floor of an actual wing). I've been strip-searched plenty of times (in six different nicks) and there was never anything like that - or a female officer involved.

  7. Hi, I'm possibly looking at time for a crime i did not commit, in the hands of the defence now! i am uncircumcised, and suffer from mild phimosis. All method to cure have failed, so it'll be circumcision next. I have it on my medical notes i have this condition, so i'll try to let you know in due course (assuming the system stitches me up) what the outcome of this was!

    Hopefully, you'll never hear from me again though :)

  8. What if phimosis prevents you from pulling back your foreskin?

  9. Several years ago I was unfortunate enough to spend eleven months in three various prisons. I didn't mind the strip-search in the reception of each prison, although, after arrival I was taken to the hospital wing, where a doctor decided I was at risk of suicide. So, the wing staff, all female, walked me to a cell, with a plastic bed and nothing else. I was shocked when I was told I had to get my clothes off, in front of the three hospital wing staff to!!! It was so embarrassing for me, as I'm self-conscious of my small penis, and also my bright-ginger pubic-hair. Sure enough, as I dropped my underpants, and the female staff seen my genitals, they almost burst into laughter, and when I tried to cover my modesty with my hands, there eldest nurse, aged about 46 years, ordered me to place both hands at my sides, and to stand facing them. I did so, and I did so, and must have been stood there for about 15-20 minutes, totally naked, with three female hospital wing staff stood right in front of me, and they were clearly enjoying my utter humiliation. If I wasn't feeling suicidal before, I certainly was afterwards.