Body searches

Key Elements

In prison, it is sometimes necessary, for security reasons, to conduct body searches of detainees. The aim of body searches is to avoid bringing in and trafficking banned or dangerous substances and objects (e.g. weapons, drugs, or mobile phones).

There are three types of body searches:

• frisking (or pat-down): the detainee remains dressed;
• visual inspections: the detainee must undress and is subject to a visual inspection, without physical contact;
• intimate body cavity searches: the detainee is subjected to a physical examination of their body cavities (anus, vagina). Progressive standards recommend that such searches be prohibited by law. While these searches are not strictly prohibited, they should only be performed by trained and authorized doctors.

Due to their intrusive nature, all body searches can be degrading, even humiliating. They should therefore be used only when strictly necessary to maintain order or security in the prison for the person themselves and for other detainees and staff. Finally, searches must be conducted in a manner that is respectful of the detainee’s dignity.

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Reasons for body searches and circumstances of searches

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.

Modalities of body searches

Body searches must be carried out by one person or by two staff members at the most. Body searches are sensitive operations, they must be carried out by trained and easily-identifiable personnel.

Insofar as non-invasive body searches aim to ensure safety and order, physicians should not participate in body searches. Cavity searches, which involve a risk of physical or psychological injury, should be prohibited by law, as recommended by the most progressive standards. However, when such searches are legally authorized, they should only be carried out by doctors. If body searches call for a doctor to perform them, the doctor should not be the prison’s doctor.

Body searches must be carried out in two stages in order to avoid the humiliation and complete nudity of the detainee. The inmate should take off his/her clothes from the waist up and then put their clothes back on before taking off their clothes from the waist down. These searches must be conducted in private, in a separate room, away from the eyes of inmates or others. There must be adequate conditions of hygiene and cleanliness.

For lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) detainees, the choice of the staff’s gender conducting the search should be respected. Some countries have adopted specific regulations regarding transgender body cavity searches with individualized search protocols in place.Transgender inmates should be consulted on the gender of the person conducting the search.


All searches must be conducted by staff of the same gender as the detainee and must be conducted out of sight and presence of staff of the opposite gender.


Body searches can be inherently humiliating and degrading for all detainees but women are even more vulnerable in these situations. This is the reason why international standards and jurisprudence require that women be searched by other women. For full body searches, inmates are often asked to spread their legs to allow visual inspection of the vagina and this experience is traumatic, even if the search is carried out by a woman. In the case of vaginal examinations the experience is even more humiliating and traumatic. These types of body searches should be prohibited or used only in exceptional cases.


The criteria of need and proportionality apply to any search, but their importance is enhanced when it comes to the specific vulnerabilities of people who have an intellectual disability or a mental disorder. The intrusiveness of the search can be more painful and traumatic for a person suffering from such disorders. Appropriate measures of reasonable accommodation should be developed and implemented by the authorities to avoid suffering, humiliation or inconvenience to people living with mental or physical disabilities.

Body searches and visits of close friends and family

In many countries, people who come to visit the detainees are also subjected to body searches for safety reasons. In practice, these security measures disproportionately affect women: mothers, wives, girlfriends or sisters of detainees. There is a very high risk of abuse aimed at humiliating guests or preventing visits. The risk is enhanced when these searches are systematically applied, regardless of the women’s age or health (older women, young girls, pregnant women). Searches of children visiting their parents in prison is particularly sensitive and staff must be particularly attentive and respectful.

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Questions for monitors

Are the circumstances, conditions and terms of body searches defined in a piece of legislation?

Are search procedures detailed in the institution’s rules?

Are personnel, staff, inmates and visitors aware of the search procedures detailed in the institution’s rules?

Are body searches conducted only when necessary and respecting the principle of proportionality?

Are body searches conducted systematically to all detainees, at other moments than upon admission?

Are body searches carried out of other detainees’ sight?

Are body searches carried out by personnel of the same gander and without staff members of the opposite sex present?


Are women (including children and teenagers) searched by female staff members only?

Are there specific regulations for body searches of transgender people providing them with the opportunity to choose the gender of the person doing the search?

Are full body searches conducted in two stages (upper body and lower body) and in a separate room? What happens in practice?

Are intimate excavations they strictly forbidden? Otherwise, are they expected to be carried out only in exceptional circumstances and by a qualified physician (other than the prison’s doctor)? What happens in practice?

Are there any alternatives to body searches in place? Are there any in place, notably to avoid body searches of visitors?

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