Australia: Detainee’s courage drives change on strip searches

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The use of scanning technology to replace strip searches with female detainees is a step closer in one Australian jurisdiction, following a report into a critical incident undertaken by the Office of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Inspector of Correctional Services.

Rebecca Minty, the Deputy Inspector, told the APT’s Perspectives podcast that the review was established to investigate the forcible strip search of an Aboriginal woman detained at the Alexander Maconochie Centre in Canberra.

On the day of the search, the woman – who had recently experienced sexual assault and who also had a serious heart condition – had been denied approval to attend her grandmother’s funeral.

“She was very traumatised and it was determined that she should go to the crisis support unit of the jail to be under observation, for her own safety,” Ms Minty told the APT.

However, she refused to be strip searched and four officers, wearing “essentially riot gear”, entered her cell to forcibly search her. A prolonged struggle followed.

Ms Minty said the review by her Office found that, while there were safety grounds for the search, the methods used by centre staff violated the woman’s human rights.

The report described the incident as "degrading and traumatising" and recommended that a body scanner be purchased to avoid the use of strip searches in the future.

Ms Minty said that while an official response to the report from the ACT Government has not yet been received, “we’ve heard that they will be procuring two body scanners in the forthcoming budget cycle”.

She said it was an extremely positive outcome and one that was driven by the detainee, who wrote publicly about the ordeal she experienced.

Her courage and strength to come forward and to speak out has achieved this change. Let's hope that fewer women will have to experience what she's experienced because there'll now be a body scanner they can walk through.

Rebecca Minty, Deputy Inspector, Office of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Inspector of Correctional Services

Ms Minty said that once the Government formally responds to the recommendations, the Office of the ACT Inspector of Correctional Services will assume responsibility for monitoring their implementation.

This podcast is part of the APT’s global campaign on Women and Prison, which promotes understanding and implementation of the UN Bangkok Rules. Over the next three months, the campaign will focus on the use of body searches and strip searches in places of detention.