revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of
Specific provisions dealing with body searches can be
found in the revised Standard Minimum Rules,4 in the
UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and
Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok
Rules, 2010), in the European Prison Rules (2006) and
in the Inter-American Principles and Best Practices on
the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the
Americas (2008). These provisions underline the need for
regulations governing searches, the exceptional nature of
body searches, and the need for searches to respect the
detainee’s dignity and to be carried out by trained staff of
the same sex. They also recommend the development
and use of alternative searching methods.
Case law has further defined conditions and modalities
regarding the legitimacy of body searches. The European
Court of Human Rights, for example, has found strip
searches to constitute degrading treatment when not
justified by compelling security reasons and/or due to
the way they were conducted.5 The Inter-American Court
on Human Rights considered a finger vaginal inspection
carried out by several hooded staff members at the same
time, in a very abrupt manner, ‘constituted sexual rape
that due to its effects constituted torture’.6
Recommendations provided by monitoring bodies such
as the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture7
and the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture also
provide useful guidance.
In 1993, the World Medical Association adopted a
Statement on Body Searches of Prisoners which
reiterates the overarching principles of the individual’s
privacy and dignity and requires that body cavity
searches be carried out by personnel with appropriate
• International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,
Article 7 and 10
• Revised UN Standard Minimum Rules for the
Treatment of Prisoners, Rules 50-52 (prisoners and
cells), Rule 60 (visitors), Rule 76 (training of staff)
• UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and
Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the
Bangkok Rules), Rules 19 to 21
• European Prison Rules, Rules 54.1 to 54.10
• Inter-American Principles and Best Practices on
the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the
Americas, Principle XXI
• Principles of Medical Ethics relevant to the Role
of Health Personnel, particularly Physicians, in the
Protection of Prisoners and Detainees against Torture
and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or
• World Medical Association Statement on Body
Searches of Prisoners
3. Types and situations of risk
3.1. Grounds and conditions for searches
While the provision of security in places of detention and
the protection of detainees and staff may justify body
searches, a domestic legal basis is imperative to avoid
abuse. The use of body searches should be prescribed
by law,8 which should define the conditions under which
searches may take place based on the criteria of necessity
and proportionality,9 and should include the admissible
sanctions against detainees who refuse to undergo a
search. Additional operational regulations could provide
more detailed procedures regulating the circumstances
and modalities of the use of body searches.
Usually, a systematic search takes place upon admission
to a place of detention to ensure that the detainee
does not carry dangerous objects (such as weapons)
or prohibited items (such as drugs, objects that could
be used for escape attempts, or cell phones in some
contexts). Searches are subsequently applied when
detainees may have had access to such items, for
example before and following personal contact with
visitors (relatives, friends, lawyers),10 exercise or activity
in workshops, after transfers, including for example
for specialised treatment to a hospital, or following
home visits or temporary release. They may be argued
on medical grounds, for example if the detainee is
suspected to have swallowed or hidden drugs or other
items that might constitute a health hazard.
3. Revised United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), adopted by the UN Commission on Crime
Prevention and Criminal Justice on 22 May 2015, endorsed by the Economic and Social Council on 9 September 2015, UN-Doc. E/RES/2015/20 and
adopted by UN General Assembly Third Committee on 5 November 2015, UN-Doc. A/C.3/70/L.3 (at the time of printing this Resolution was pending
adoption by the plenary of the UN General Assembly.): Rules 50-52 for prisoners and cells, Rule 60 for visitors, see Rules 75 and 76 for training of staff.
4. Revised Standard Minimum Rules, Rules 50-52 for prisoners and cells, Rule 60 for visitors, see Rules 75 and 76 for training of staff.
5. Iwanczuk v Poland, 15 November 2001; Shennawy vs France, 20 January 2011; Valasina v Lithuania, 24 July 2001; Frerot v. France, 12 June 2007.
6. Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Miguel Castro-Castro Prison vs Peru, 25 November 2006, para. 312. See also para. 309 to 312. In paragraph 310, the
Court considers that ‘sexual rape does not necessarily imply a non-consensual sexual vaginal relationship, as traditionally considered. Sexual rape must also
be understood as act of vaginal or anal penetration, without the victim’s consent, through the use of other parts of the aggressor’s body or objects’.
7. See more at http://www.cpt.coe.int/en/hudoc-cpt.htm, key words ‘body search’.
8. Revised Standard Minimum Rules, Rule 50, which inter alia states that ‘[t]he laws and regulations governing searches of prisoners and cells shall be in
accordance with obligations under international law and shall take into account international standards and norms, keeping in mind the need to ensure
security in the prison’.
9. Revised Standard Minimum Rules, Rule 50.
10. In Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, according to a new policy, detainees are subject to a genital pat-down search whenever they leave the detention
camp, including for a meeting with a lawyer. This policy has been challenged as ‘having no legitimate purpose, but being pretextual, imposed in order
to chill the right of access to counsel’. Available at: http://jurist.org/paperchase/2013/07/guantanamo-guards-allowed-to-continue-detainee-genitalsearches.php, <accessed 30 October 2013>.
Penal Reform International | Body searches: Addressing risk factors to prevent torture and ill-treatment