On November 19th, the Ban Strip Searches in NSW Coalition held a demonstration outside Silverwater Correctional Centre to protest against the routine use of strip searches by NSW Police and Corrective Services.
The demonstration follows a report published by the Inspector of Custodial Services of an inspection of Mary Wade Correctional Centre in October, which revealed the lack of regulation of strip search procedures.
Kat Armstrong, ex-prisoner, advocate and lawyer, says that institutional strip searches performed on any person amount to state-sanctioned sexual assault. The phrase was first used by MP Joel Fitzgibbon when referring to the incident in Qatar where Australian women were removed from a flight and strip-searched in an ambulance.
NSW Custodial Operations Policy and Procedures on arrival from any external facility or contact visit, as well as at any other time deemed necessary. As Ms Armstrong recalled one of the many times she was strip-searched, she says:
“I was in disbelief and shock. I felt violated. I felt scared. I felt absolute shame…I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
From her experience, Ms Armstrong states that these searches are often carried out at random and officers need only raise a suspicion that an inmate may have contraband.
“A target strip search is based on an officer, or officers, saying, “We believe Kat Armstrong may have contraband on her”, and they can come and target strip search you at any time of the day or night.”
The report published by the Inspector of Custodial Services found that routine strip searches were being performed on women even where there is no basis for suspicion and where women have not had any external contact. Despite this, NSW Corrective Services policy does not require central record-keeping of the number of strip searches conduced, or the circumstances in which they occur.
Ms Armstrong says,
“Many times, in the way that I was strip searched, procedures were not followed.”
She recounts searches where male officers were made to observe while a female officer performed the strip search, despite policy requiring the search to be completed by two female officers. She adds that these searches are often done punitively.
“If officers don’t like you, for whatever reason, they will target you because they know how much it affects you to be strip searched.”
As a survivor of sexual assault, Ms Armstrong believes that strip searches serve to re-traumatise vulnerable women.
“Many women, in my experience, have told their family not to bring themselves or their children [to visits] because of being so traumatised by those strip searches…but you will endure that state-sanctioned sexual assault just so you get to hold your child.”
As a mother herself, Ms Armstrong recounts one particular event where officers strip searched her before a visit with her daughter and even made her remove her tampon as part of the search. She was told that if she refused, she would not be able to see her daughter.
“That is dehumanising to any woman, whether you’re a victim of a sexual assault or not…and the only reason they did that is because they had the power to do it and they knew I would do it because I so wanted to see my child.”
Refusing to comply with a strip search also carries consequences for inmates.
“If you refuse to have a strip search, they give you what is called a ‘direct order’, otherwise you can and will be charged for not complying.”
These internal charges can result in loss of phone calls, visits and buy-ups, which are used to purchase everyday items that would otherwise be unavailable.
While she adds that not all strip searches that she experienced violated proper procedures, those that did were a blatant abuse of power. Ms Armstrong recalls an event where her clothes were forcibly removed by male and female officers after she refused to agree to a strip search.
“Out of every time I ever [lodged a complaint], nothing was ever done. I wrote to ministers, the Commissioner, and never did I get an apology…it’s your word against them.”
There have been overwhelming numbers of recommendations across Australian jurisdictions for the introduction of alternative search methods, such as body scanners, to replace strip searches.
The Inspector of Custodial Services’ report makes a recommendation for the end of routine strip searches in certain circumstances, particularly given the information provided by Corrective Services that no contraband was found in Mary Wade Correctional Centres during strip searches between 2018 and 2019. In their report on Women in Remand in February 2020, the Inspector of Custodial Services called for the introduction of technology to replace strip searching as a more effective and respectful way to search for contraband.
These technologies have already been trialled within Australia. In New South Wales, a body scanner was introduced in maximum-security John Moroney Correctional Centre which allowed an inmate to be scanned safely up to 150 times per year.
A report published in 2019 by the Western Australia Inspector of Custodial Services also found no increase in contraband in facilities where strip searches were replaced with other procedures.
Ms Armstrong’s hope is for her story to make a difference, so that other women do not have to have similar experiences.
“They did do it to me and they continue to do it to other women…I have a large prisoner community beside me who have also told me of their experiences that are just like mine.”
“I hope this is worthy of all the women, as you and I talk right now, who are going through this experience.”