FACTSHEET

Detention Monitoring Tool  Second edition

Body searches

Addressing risk factors to prevent torture and ill-treatment
‘We are strip searched after every visit. We are naked, told to bend over, touch our toes, spread our
cheeks. If we’ve got our period we have to take the tampon out in front of them. It’s degrading and
humiliating. When we do urines it’s even worse, we piss in a bottle in front of them. If we can’t or won’t we
lose visits for three weeks.’
Prisoner from Fairlea Prison, Australia1

1.	Definition and context
In prisons, body searches may constitute necessary
security measures to prevent the entry and contraband
of dangerous (such as weapons) or prohibited items
(such as drugs and objects that could be used for
escape attempts, or cell phones in some contexts).
However, owing to their intrusive nature, body searches
are an infringement of a person’s privacy and should
therefore only be resorted to when strictly necessary and
in a manner that respects the detainee’s dignity.
The term ‘body searches’ covers three different types of
searches:

•	 Pat-down or frisk searches are searches

performed over the clothed body. These searches
therefore include physical contact between the
prisoner and staff member but no nudity.

•	 Strip searches refer to the removal of some or

all of a person’s clothing in order to permit a visual
inspection of all parts of the body, without physical
contact. Procedures may vary but prisoners are
usually required to take off their clothes and to
provide an unobstructed view of possible hiding
places. They may be asked to open their mouth, and
to bend and cough. Men may be asked to lift their
penis and testicles, while women may have to spread
their legs for inspection of the genital area.

•	 Body-cavity searches (or invasive or intimate

searches) are a physical examination of body orifices
(such as vagina or anus). This type of search includes
rectal and pelvic examination, and is physically and
psychologically the most intrusive method.

All types of body search can be intimidating and
degrading, and the more intrusive the method, the
stronger the feeling of invasion will be. The psychological
effect and the violation of the right to dignity can be
exacerbated for detainees from particular religious
or cultural backgrounds as well as for detainees in
situations of vulnerability. Body searches represent a
high-risk situation for abuse, ill-treatment or even torture,
and may also be misused to intimidate, harass, retaliate
or discriminate.
Therefore body searches should be resorted to only
when strictly necessary to ensure the security of staff and
detainees, and they should be conducted in a manner
that respects the dignity of the person. Body searches
need to be regulated by law and clear policies and
guidelines need to be put in place to explicitly define the
conditions and modalities of their use. Alternatives, such
as electronic scanning devices, should be developed
and used wherever possible and when body searches
are unavoidable, the least invasive method should be
applied. Records should be kept to ensure accountability.
Body searches may also be performed on visitors,
including professional visitors such as social workers,
and on staff themselves.

2.	What are the main standards?
When conducting body searches, staff in detention
facilities have to respect the prohibition of torture,
inhuman and degrading treatment,2 as well as the right
of all persons deprived of their liberty to be ‘treated with
humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of
the human person’ (Article 10, International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights, see also Rule 1 of the

1.	 George A, ‘Strip searches: sexual assault by the state’, in Without consent: confronting adult sexual violence, Australian Institute of Criminology, 1993,
p211.
2.	 These include Article 5 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and
Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture.

Penal Reform International | Body searches: Addressing risk factors to prevent torture and ill-treatment	

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