“Undignified” practice of child strip searches still taking place

school_corridorUnbelievably, tens of thousands of children, as young as 12, are still being subjected to the “undignified” practice of strip searches, despite reassurances from the Youth Justice Board.

Results from an FOI request found that there had been 43,000 recorded incidents of children being strip searched in young offender institutions, secure children’s homes and secure training centers in the 21 months up to December 2012, with only 275 searches finding “illicit” items. When items were found, the most common was tobacco and on no occasions were discoveries of drugs or knives recorded; hardly life or death situations. In 99.4% of searches nothing was found.

The humiliating and intrusive practice should only be used in a limited amount of serious cases against adults, never mind children. The regulation of these intrusive and disproportionate powers is far too weak and urgently needs to be properly addressed. Why are so many searches being conducted and yet so few finding anything? Is this yet another area where powers are being used frequently without suspicion?

In 2011 the Youth Justice Board said that the routine strip-searching of incarcerated children would stop saying that it was “undignified”, lead to “feelings of anger, humiliation and anxiety”, but little has changed since its report.

This is not the first time that there has been a disproportionate use of powers used by officials, just because they can. Between 2007 and 2009 450,000 people were stopped and searched under section 44 of the Terrorism Act; none were convicted of terrorism charges.

On a different, though equally serious, note it was found that searches of luggage have been taking place at Birmingham Airport without the correct permission to do so. The illegal checks of luggage were based on “interpretation of regulations”, which allow border forces to search baggage but only with permission to do so. In this case, if a search took place and nothing illicit was found then no record was made. This is was occurring when luggage is already being scanned to check the contents of the bag, meaning that there are questions as to whether bags need to be routed through, on mass, at all.

There is a systematic problem of officials using powers disproportionately which needs to urgently be addressed. There is simply no justification for over 43,000, many with a background of being sexually assaulted, to have to strip off and be searched so on 8 in 1000 times officials can find some tobacco.

We will be writing to Jeremy Wright MP, Minister for Prisons and Rehabilitation with responsibility for youth justice, to request that this issue is urgently addressed by the Ministry of Justice.