Stripping away abuse
I am pleased to say that I can announce, after much work and lobbying by the Howard League, that the prisonâ€™s minister, Jeremy Wright, has confirmed that the government intends to end the practice of routine strip-searching on reception in young offender institutions.
Central to the work of the Howard League is to campaign against routine abuses of children in prison. Abhorrent practices, such as the routine strip-searching of children, have long been the focus of our work, such as Lord Carlileâ€™s landmark inquiry into childrenâ€™s prisons. This inquiry concluded that:
Within the custodial context a strip-search is more than just the removal of clothes for a visual inspection. It is a manifestation of power relations. A strip-search involves adult staff forcing a child to undress in front of them. Forcing a person to strip takes all control away and can be demeaning and dehumanising.
The first experience for every child entering a young offender institution â€“ often their first time from home, often having been a victim of physical or sexual abuse, often after a traumatic court appearance and hours in a sweatbox â€“ is to remove their clothes in front of two members of staff whilst their bodies are stared at. There has been much progress in this area. But, whilst routine strip-searching has been ended in most aspects of prison life and replaced with a more proportionate, risk-assessed approach, this has not happened at a childâ€™s first reception into the prison. This is often when children are at their most vulnerable. I saw how strip-searching still works in practice on a recent visit to a young offender institution and found that it takes place in an alcove on a corridor. I was horrified.
After a number of months garnering information, I wrote to Jeremy Wright in April to outline the case for change. At the time we did not publish the letter; we have now and you can read it in full.
There were two key pieces of recent information, which we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, on which we argued our case for change. Firstly, we obtained figures that showed that children had been strip-searched 11,713 times in the space of a year. This included searches that had taken place following a risk-assessment within the prison, such as part of a cell-search or following a visit, as well as on reception. Only 77 illicit items were found. Even if in the extraordinarily unlikely event that all the items were found as a result of strip-searching on reception, this would equate to just 0.66 per cent of all searches. It is implausible to contend that forcing children to remove their clothing 11,713 times justifies this policy.
Secondly, we found out that a pilot, which began in 2010, had been running successfully for six months at one prison. During the pilot there was no increase in contraband finds. Despite being supported by the YJB, the individual establishment, staff working there, the prisonsâ€™ inspectorate and the children held, it was brought to an end primarily because NOMS would not authorise a temporary change so that they would not have to strip-search children without it affecting their safety score. It is absurd that good practice, supported by emerging evidence, was ended due to a bureaucratic technicality.
We asked the Minister to reintroduce a time-limited pilot using a risk-based approach to strip-searching on reception prior to a national roll-out. He has said yes. This is most welcome and we are grateful to him and his officials.
Last yearÂ children were strip-searched over 11,000 times on reception. Next year it may be a handful. It is a good day for penal reform.