Stripping children of dignity

By Monique Hurley
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Stuart McAlpine/flickr

When a child is sent to prison, their very first experience will be a strip search. They will be ushered into a room with two adult prison guards and ordered to remove every single item of their clothing. Their genitals will be exposed. Their underwear will be inspected. Their breasts will be bare. If they refuse, they can be forcibly strip searched.

What this means is that every time a child hugs their dad or holds their mum’s hand, they can be subsequently strip searched.

Data obtained through Freedom of Information laws shows that in just one month, children as young as ten were subjected to 403 strip searches in just two New South Wales (NSW) juvenile detention centres. As a result of all of these searches, only a ping pong ball was found.

This jaw-dropping data should alarm us all. It shows that children are being stripped of their dignity, literally, by being regularly and routinely subjected to strip searches. Children are strip searched on entry to the prison, every time they go to court, when they leave the facility to see a doctor, get transferred and after every contact visit. What this means is that every time a child hugs their dad or holds their mum’s hand, they can be subsequently strip searched.

While the data from NSW is particularly concerning, it is representative of a broader trend across Australia. In places where the practice of routine strip searching is not banned, children are being subjected to excessive numbers of strip searches with only very minimal, and often very minor, prohibited items being located.

In Victoria, 1,798 strip searches were conducted on children in a six-month period, and only 14 prohibited items were found, including sunglasses, a watch, a hat and some cigarettes. In Western Australia, 801 strip searches were conducted on children in a six-month period, with only four prohibited items located, including a CD.

The NSW Government’s response to this data is similar to others: minimise, deny and employ confusing doublespeak. In this instance, the NSW Government has denied using strip searches, saying they rather employ half-half searches.

A half-half strip search takes place when a child is alone, in a room, with two adult prison guards. The search involves a child being directed by a prison guard to remove their pants, underwear and socks so that the bottom half of their body, including their genitals, are completely exposed. The prison guard might then allow the child to put their underwear back on before ordering the child to remove their jumper, t-shirt and bra so that the top half of their body is naked for inspection. Again, if a child refuses, the guards can forcibly strip search them.

A woman told us that she found these half-half searches more distressing because every single time she was subjected to it, she had flash backs of how she was sexually abused as a child. Her t-shirt always remained on.

There is no reason why governments continue to subject children to a practice that will likely scar them for life when they can instead use wands and X-ray body scanners, similar to those used in airports across the country, to search a child when required.

Children locked up in prison are significantly more likely than other children to come from trauma backgrounds, with many having survived sexual abuse. Given this, directing a child to keep a singlet or their socks on while they are being strip searched against their will does nothing to detract from how inherently damaging and degrading the search is.

Governments also tend to cite safety concerns as a justification for keeping routine strip searches within the arsenal of tools that prison guards can deploy to control people in prison. There is, however, no evidence that routine strip searches act as a deterrent. In places where there have been moves to ban routine strip searching – like in the ACT and the United Kingdom – there has not been an increase in the number of prohibited items entering prisons. Reducing strip searches simply does not result in an increase in contraband entering a prison.

There are also far more effective and less invasive ways of checking for prohibited items. There is no reason why governments continue to subject children to a practice that will likely scar them for life when they can instead use wands and X-ray body scanners, similar to those used in airports across the country, to search a child when required. This is especially the case given that the NSW, Victorian and Western Australian Governments are already trialling these search practices in some adult prisons.

Irrespective of what a child might have done to land themselves in prison, children should always be treated fairly and with dignity. They should never be harmed. They should never be subjected to a traumatising practice that is completely unnecessary. Every single Australian government should ban the humiliating practice of regularly and routinely strip searching children in prisons today.

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