Children routinely strip-searched in England & Wales child prisons and secure children’s homes despite government pledge to stop. Nearly half were of Black or ethnic minority background, some as young as 12 Serco’s Ashfield child prison, holding 400 boys, stripped 399 boys-a-month

Two years ago this month, the Youth Justice Board (YJB) announced the end of routine strip-searching in children’s secure establishments. (View its press release here).

Despite the promise to move to risk-based strip-searching, official data shows thousands of locked up children are still being forced to expose their naked bodies to adults in authority. This is institutionalised child abuse.

According to data provided by the Youth Justice Board in response to my Freedom of Information request, there were 43,960 recorded strip-searches in 25 establishments (15 child prisons and 10 secure children’s homes) in the 21 months up to December 2012 (the figures are incomplete so this is an under-estimate). The data does not reveal what proportion of the children were subjected to intimate cavity searches.

These are children locked up miles from their families and communities being forced to remove all their clothing, including their underwear, and expose their naked bodies to prison officers and care staff. The youngest person to be strip-searched was aged 12.

Forty-eight per cent of those made to remove their clothes were children from Black and minority ethnic communities.

Like the Prison Service, the Youth Justice Board refers to strip-searches as “full searches” and gave me the following description:

A full search requires for a young person to remove all clothing including their underwear for the purpose of detecting contraband on the person or contained in the young person’s clothes.”

A monthly average of 84 strip-searches took place in each establishment. There is wide variation between institutions: Ashfield young offender institution run by Serco undertook an average of 399 strip-searches of children (with an average 6 finds of contraband) every month whereas 3 of the country’s 10 secure children’s homes did not strip-search a single child over the whole 21-month period.

A girl quoted by the Youth Justice Board, when it made its March 2011 announcement, explains the impact of strip-searching:

It makes me feel upset, embarrassed and really violating because I have been raped and it’s awful being strip-searched.”

Another girl recalled:

When I had my first full search I was 14, it was horrible as I have been sexually abused and I didn’t feel comfortable showing my body as this brought back memories.”

During Lord Carlile’s independent inquiry into the use of restraint, strip-searching and segregation in child custody, a girl told me she had been made to hand over a bloody sanitary towel during a strip-search. After it was inspected, the prison officer handed back the sanitary towel and the girl was allowed to get dressed.

Boys told the Inquiry they suffered a loss of dignity, fear and shock at having to remove all their clothes. The Prisons Inspectorate has reported instances of children having their clothes cut off and being physically restrained whilst their clothes and underwear were forcibly removed.

The Youth Justice Board data I have elicited shows physical force was used on children being strip-searched 50 times in 3 prisons (34 times in Wetherby young offender institution). The Board does not monitor the use of ratchet handcuffs during strip-searching, how often clothes are cut off or whether children are offered gowns to wear during these deeply degrading procedures.

When, back in 2006, the Youth Justice Board rejected Lord Carlile’s 2006 conclusion that strip-searching is not necessary to maintain good order and safety, it claimed, “It is absolutely necessary to ensure that dangerous/illegal items and substances are not brought into secure establishments, for the safety and security of all children and staff”.

I asked how much contraband was discovered through strip-searching. The results show the YJB’s response to Lord Carlile’s recommendation to be the work of a fantasist: just 226 items were found in 2011/12 and 49 items in 2012. That is, an unofficial item was found 8 times in every 1,000 strip searches in 2011/12 and 3 in every 1,000 strip searches in 2012.

The single most common contraband was tobacco, discovered 85 times. (Readers may recall that 14 year-old Adam Rickwood, who hanged himself by his shoelaces hours after being physically restrained in Hassockfield secure training centre, had all his “privileges” removed the day before because his mother had given him two cigarettes and five matches). No explosives, guns or knives were found, and drugs were recovered on just 15 occasions – from nearly 44,000 strip-searches.

Prisons are intensely hierarchical institutions that rely on every person knowing their place. This does not appear in any official documentation I am aware of, but there is no doubt that strip-searching serves the function of demeaning and disempowering children. In his 1950s studies of dehumanising rituals in asylums and other institutions, Goffman describes mortification of the self. Children today say strip-searching makes them scared and humiliated and causes them to have flashbacks to previous sexual assaults.

Forcing children to strip off their clothes was a feature of the abusive Pindown regime in four Staffordshire children’s homes in the 1980s. Government guidance subsequently described intimate physical searches as ‘totally unacceptable’ (this was removed in the 2011 guidance).

That incarcerated children are deeply vulnerably is beyond question. Of 951 children in prison surveyed by the Prisons Inspectorate in 2011/12: 30 per cent of boys and 44 per cent of girls had been in local authority care; 11 per cent of boys and 8 per cent of girls were disabled; and only a third of children received weekly visits from family and friends.

An audit conducted for the Youth Justice Board found that nearly half of locked up children had literacy and numeracy levels below an average 11-year old. Over one-quarter had numeracy levels equivalent to a child of seven years or younger. The Prison Reform Trust analysed the backgrounds of 200 children in custody and found that 13 percent had experienced the death of their mother, father or sibling.

The data I have elicited shows strip-searching has reduced by about a quarter in the last year, though it remains incredibly high: in the nine months between April and December 2012, children were made to remove their clothes and underwear 16,133 times. The most striking change is within the four secure training centres run by Serco and G4S, which report an overall 98 per cent reduction. State prisons appear to have made the least progress, with only a 16 percent reduction.

The very small amount of contraband found during this period, and the continuing absence of guns and knives, points to the practice still being disproportionate and excessive. The Youth Justice Board told me: “The vast majority of full searches carried out by establishments happen on a routine basis, for example on reception or discharge.”

The automatic strip-searching of women prisoners ended in April 2009 (with piloting from 2007). This followed an independent review by Baroness Corston, established by the then Home Secretary. Corston described strip-searching as “humiliating, degrading and undignified … and a dreadful invasion of privacy” and, for those abused in the past, “an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation”.

Inhuman and degrading treatment is, of course, unlawful under the Human Rights Act, but the rules governing the strip-searching of children give wide powers to establishments. There are no statutory criteria for strip-searching children, and no requirement to notify parents or local authorities that a child has been made to remove his or her clothes and underwear. The law provides no protection to those who have been sexually assaulted in the past; and children have no statutory right of access to an independent advocate after being subject to such a harrowing procedure.

This matter is of such magnitude that Ministers must amend the rules governing secure establishments to prescribe the extremely limited circumstances in which it would ever be permissible to make children in institutions remove their clothes and underwear. Staff must be required to undertake this intrusive process in a humane and dignified manner, which includes providing children with gowns; refraining from shouting at, and verbally insulting, them; and never, ever cutting off their clothes.

 The Carlile Inquiry report (2006) can be downloaded from the Howard League for Penal Reform website.

This piece was first published on childrensrightsblog.


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