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‘Traumatic’ strip searches lead women in Queensland jails to avoid medical treatment and family visits, review finds

Women in Queensland prisons are avoiding seeking medical treatment or having family visit to escape “traumatic” and “completely ineffective” strip searches, according to a review by the state’s human rights commission.

The review, published by the Queensland Human Rights Commission (QHRC) on Wednesday, calls for the procedure to be limited and eventually abolished, as prisoners and staff reported its dehumanising and counterproductive effects.

The QHRC found the practice was ineffective in making prisons safer, with contraband detected in as few as one in 10,000 searches.

Prisoners interviewed by the QHRC described how the searches were “demeaning” and “degrading”, impacted their relationship with staff and impeded their rehabilitation.

Women spoke of avoiding or delaying seeking medical treatment, choosing not to attend court matters in person and not having family visits to avoid the searches.

“When you come into jail, they strip you physically but they strip you of your self-respect, of your people, of your identity,” one prisoner said.

Prisoners also reported experiences of being humiliated after staff made comments about their bodies and tattoos or asked them to take their tampons out while they were menstruating.

Another prisoner said she felt violated by the search. “I did not want people to see my body, but I was made to do it. It felt like I was being sexually assaulted – take your clothes off, do it now or else,” she said.

The review, published by the QHRC on Wednesday, was a recommendation of the women’s safety and justice taskforce, which found strip searches are often deeply traumatising for women and girls with a history of sexual assault or physical violence.

The QHRC made 24 recommendations for Queensland Corrective Services to implement before March 2024, including that strip searches be restricted to the first time a prisoner enters custody and only when no body scanners are available.

Once this technology is available, the commission says the procedure should be prohibited entirely or authorised only in exceptional circumstances, with the department to evaluate outcomes in 24 months.

Staff interviewed in the report said they felt strip searches were “counterproductive” and “dehumanising”.

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“Vicarious trauma is massive in corrections … It’s incomprehensible to say we care about their outcomes but we’re still going to do things to them rather than for them,” one corrections staff member said.

Queensland’s human rights commissioner, Scott McDougall, said strip searches were “unnecessarily traumatic and humiliating for prisoners, but they are also completely ineffective”.

“They have an absurdly low rate of contraband detection and have negative impacts on prison operations,” he said.

“They need to be replaced by modern technological alternatives in drug and contraband detection.”

The commission heard of one complaint by a transgender woman who was subjected to a search by multiple male staff after she was sexually assaulted by another prisoner while assigned to a men’s prison.

The QHRC said transgender people should be able to choose whether they were searched by male or female staff.

Women who have been placed in isolation after being sexually or physically assaulted or who are returning to prison following a birth, miscarriage or termination should not be strip-searched, according to the QHRC.

The chief executive of Sisters Inside, Debbie Kilroy, said the recommendations did not go far enough.

“Sisters Inside has been campaigning and lobbying to end strip searching policies and practices for more than 30 years,” she said.

“We want strip searching abolished immediately.”

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