Concern about routine strip searching and high incidence of force and restraint in women’s prison

Thursday 30 November 2017
Female prisoners in Victoria’s main women’s prison are being routinely strip searched, in what Ombudsman Deborah Glass has described as a “humiliating, degrading and undignified practice”.
Ms Glass said her office had conducted an independent inspection of the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre over seven days in July. Her staff assessed the prison’s conditions and practices against the rigorous standards that will be required when Australia ratifies the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) in December.
Tabling the Implementing OPCAT in Victoria: report and inspection of the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in Victorian Parliament today, Ms Glass said the inspection had uncovered some serious issues.
“We were particularly concerned about the routine practice of strip searching the women before and after contact visits,” Ms Glass said. “Although intended to prevent contraband entering the prison, it does not appear to be effective in doing so: none of the items seized during the searches conducted the previous year involved illicit drugs, which plainly, were entering the prison by other means,” she said.
“Yet this humiliating, degrading and undignified practice persists, described by some women prisoners as a form of sexual assault. It should not be forgotten that many women prisoners are victims of sexual abuse, for whom strip searching has the potential to inflict further trauma.”
For these reasons, the United Kingdom moved to a targeted, intelligence-based approach to strip searching after a 2007 report described regular strip searching of women as ‘wholly unacceptable’.
Ms Glass said she was disappointed the Victorian Department of Justice and Regulation had not accepted her recommendation to stop the practice and instead undertake targeted strip searching when justified by intelligence or risk. “The (department’s) claim that the women simply ‘undress’ prior to visits is at best misguided: they do so in the presence of two guards wearing latex gloves, consistent with a strip search.”
Ms Glass said her office was also concerned about the high incidence of force and restraint being used at the prison, including reports of pregnant women being handcuffed when attending external medical appointments.
“Overall we found positive initiatives but an ageing and crowded facility, where prisoner numbers have grown 65 per cent in the last five years and remand prisoners have more than doubled over the same period. While a major expansion is underway, the strains were evident during our inspection.” 
The Ombudsman has made 19 recommendations to reduce the risk of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment at the prison and to strengthen the prison’s protective safeguards. The Department has accepted all of the recommendations except the recommendation to immediately cease routine strip searching of women.
Ms Glass said she hoped her report would help prepare Victoria for the implementation of OPCAT.
“In OPCAT inspections, we seek to improve and prevent, and the results of the inspection demonstrate why OPCAT is important to all of us,” Ms Glass said. “Inspections help to ensure the effectiveness of prisons in promoting rehabilitation, which in turn reduces recidivism and increases community safety.
“Yes, it will cost money to ensure the state has properly resourced bodies to carry out inspections, and to implement recommendations. But it costs far more to deal with the consequences of ill-treatment – which could be a huge bill for damage or compensation or a Royal Commission – than setting up regular monitoring to prevent it and drive improvements.”
Ms Glass thanked the prison’s management for their participation.
“It is never easy to be exposed to independent inspection, and I must acknowledge with thanks the active cooperation of management at DPFC who ensured that my officers had full access to prisoners, staff and facilities, and engaged constructively with my staff about the issues we encountered,” she said.
Media contact: Ainslie Gowan | Tel 03 9613 6235 | Mob 0409 936 235
Further information: Tel 03 9613 6222 | Regional 1800 806 314