22 Jun 2016

Corrections' strip searches break law - lawyer

5:18 am on 22 June 2016

A lawyer is accusing the Corrections Department of breaking the law in submitting inmates to 100,000 strip searches a year.

Human rights lawyer Michael Bott said the Corrections Act Section 98 was clear that guards may strip search prisoners who were being moved around, but that it was discretionary.

A cell block at Auckland South Corrections Facility.

Corrections conducts 100,000 strip searches a year. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Corrections' chief custodial officer Neil Beales said these searches were mandatory when an inmate returned to prison.

"What you've got to realise is that those areas are not necessarily classed as sterile areas. So when somebody comes back, if it's a mandatory strip search then unfortunately then that has to happen. That's part of the process, that's part of the regulation. We are operating under the Act."

Mr Bott said that was ridiculous.

"The Department of Corrections is breaking the law, it's not acting in accordance with the Act, it's a discretion, an officer 'may'. Since when in the English dictionary does the word 'may' mean 'must'. It does become degrading because what they're doing is, without cause, they're making prisoners take their clothes off, squat, lift up their genitals, their breasts, parting their buttocks etcetera."

He is calling on the Ombudsman to investigate what he said were routine strip searches designed to degrade prisoners.

Guards say the strip searches are invasive and the Department conceded they are coercive.

The hit rate of mandatory searches is much lower than for the other category of strip searches, called 'reasonable cause', which are running at around 1500 to 2000 a month and seizing items in fewer than 1.5 percent of cases.

Mr Beales said the fact they were finding hardly anything was, "a good thing - that means it's working, that means it's acting as a deterrent".

"I've had many prisoners over 25 years say to me, 'I'm glad you do [strip searches] because that means I can tell other prisoners I'm not going to bring stuff in because I'm going to be searched."

He drew a comparison with tourists being searched at the airport, that it was about, "ensuring we have effective border control".

Parliament increased guards' strip search powers in 2013 even though the guards' union, the Law Society and the Ombudsman opposed it.

The Department has said that the power to strip search prisoners was one of "Corrections officers most coercive powers and impacts on a prisoner's right to privacy and dignity. However, in appropriate circumstances it is a necessary imposition".

In 2006 the Court of Appeal said routine use of strip searches came close to degrading treatment under the Bill of Rights. The Law Society has said that strip searching is universally acknowledged, including in case law, to be "degrading and humiliating".

A total 434,304 strip searches were carried out in the four years to mid 2015 and netted 675 items, or 0.15 percent. In the least successful month 11,863 searches discovered just one item of contraband.