Body searches can be a legitimate means of ensuring safety in prison if they meet the following three criteria:
• Legality: they are provided for and defined by law;
• Necessity: they are necessary to prevent the entry and trafficking of banned substances or objects;
• Proportionality: they are proportional to the threat; that is to say that they are the least intrusive means to ensure safety.
Because of their intrusive nature and the risk of abuse, the use of body searches must have a legal basis. A piece of legislation must define the circumstances, conditions and terms of body searches. This law may be supplemented by internal rules of the prison detailing the procedure. This must be distributed to staff and inmates. The law and/or rules may also specify the type of searches which are strictly prohibited.
The main objective of body searches is to prevent the entry or trafficking of banned products or objects. Body searches may be necessary when detainees have access to the outside world. Upon admission, detainees are often subjected to a full body search. This is also the case after family visits or after any outings for medical, legal or other reasons. Inside the prison, the prisoners may be submitted to frisk searches upon return from walks or workshops, or prior to placement in solitary confinement.
The security objective must be real and significant to prevent body searches being systematically and routinely applied to all detainees. The criteria to determine the need for a body search must be based on an assessment of the individual risk posed by each detainee or because of a well-founded suspicion.
The security imperative cannot be used to justify arbitrary or discriminatory body searches that would seek to stigmatize or humiliate a particular group of detainees, or to punish the prisoners as retaliation for a certain type of behavior.
Body searches for security reasons shall only be used when pat-downs are insufficient to maintain security. As recommended by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, body cavity searches should be prohibited.
The use of alternative measures should always be preferred, such as electronic equipment (X-rays), metal detectors or cells equipped with dry toilets in case there is a suspicion of drugs having been ingested.