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Report raises concerns about strip searches of female prisoners

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Emma Davis
WVoN co-editor

A new report has raised concerns about strip searches in a British women’s prison, with some inmates having their clothes cut off while being forcibly searched.

Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick found that there had been a “small number of supposedly spontaneous incidents” at HMP New Hall in Wakefield, where inappropriate force had been used and “too many” women had had their clothing cut off.

Hardwick highlighted how one woman, who was held down forcibly while the clothes she was wearing were cut from her, was not offered another way to resolve the issue.

He described the practices at the prison, which also holds Young Offenders and Juveniles, as unnecessary and unacceptable.

A prison service spokesperson said that cutting off clothes was sometimes necessary “using officially approved control and restrain techniques.”

The searches in question took place in the prison’s special cell in the segregation unit, where some of the “most damaged women” were placed for “good order and discipline”.

The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) commented that strip searches were rare and only carried out to find dangerous items such as weapons.

“If women resist violently during the search then clothing has to be removed by force. At times the only practical and safe way of doing this is to cut the clothing with special safety scissors.

“As far as possible, the decency of the individual is upheld throughout.”

More than a fifth of the women in the prison had worked in the sex trade in the past, 38%  had experienced sexual abuse or rape and 46% had suffered from physical abuse at some point in their lifetime. Despite this, the report found that the prison had “adequate” resources to meet issues arising from past abuse.

However, there was room for improvement in arranging visits and family contact as women often had to undergo the “unnecessary humiliation” of wearing a reflective sash when visited by their children.

In addition, separation visits, where women had their last chance to say goodbye to children who were being adopted, sometimes “unacceptably” took place in the public hall during main visiting periods.

The report’s overall conclusion was that there had been “considerable improvement” since the last inspection in 2008 and that, for the majority of women, the prison provided a safe environment and “good or reasonably good outcomes” for its inmates.

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