In the Media

Jail must stop cutting clothes off women prisoners during strip searches, inspectors rule

PUBLISHED August 29, 2012

Responses to women whose behaviour caused concern are ''excessively punitive'', said a report on New Hall Prison in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, which holds 356 women and two babies.

In one instance, a woman who arrived from another jail and refused to hand over clothes she had been allowed to wear there was held down as they were forcibly cut off her.

The practice is unacceptable and women prisoners should only have their clothes removed ''using officially approved control and restraint techniques'', Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick said.

''We were concerned by a small number of supposedly spontaneous incidents where accounts in paperwork indicated force had been used inappropriately.''

The newly arrived prisoner from Peterborough jail refused to hand over open-toed sandals and a strappy top which were allowed at Peterborough.

She was then ''restrained, relocated to the segregation unit and had her clothes cut off her as she was forcibly strip-searched'', Mr Hardwick said.

Describing the use of force as neither necessary nor proportionate, he said that a manager's approval was not obtained and that there was no attempt to resolve the issue in other ways.

''The special cell in the segregation unit was little-used but when it was, women were routinely placed in strip clothing and too many had their clothes cut off when forcibly searched. Such practices were unnecessary and unacceptable,'' Mr Hardwick said.

Some of the ''most damaged women'' were placed on the prison's segregation unit for ''good order and discipline'' but efforts to address the causes of their distress and manage their behaviour constructively were inadequate.

''Punishments were excessive and cellular confinement was used too often. In other instances, prisoners lost all privileges which amounted to cellular confinement but without the safeguards that would normally be required.''

While conditions at New Hall improved since its last inspection in November 2008, ''the treatment of a small number of women who combine the most challenging behaviour with the highest levels of need is not acceptable'', he warned.

A Prison Service spokeswoman said: ''These types of searches are rare and we have significantly reduced the amount of full searching of women.

''When they are undertaken it is mainly where there is an urgent need to find dangerous items such as weapons or drugs.

''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.''

Michael Spurr, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, said: ''I am pleased that the chief inspector has noted the considerable improvements made at New Hall since the last inspection and that it provides a safe environment and good outcomes for the majority of women in its care.

''The governor and staff are looking to build on the good work already in place to ensure that all prisoners, particularly those with the most serious behavioural issues, are given the support and treatment they need.''