Thousands of strip-searches in prisons a month reveal only dozens of contraband finds

Inmate strip searches in New Zealand prisons  rarely unearthing smuggled contraband.

Inmate strip searches in New Zealand prisons rarely unearthing smuggled contraband.

Strip-searching inmates in efforts to catch them with smuggled goods rarely uncovers contraband, new figures show.

Thousands of strip-searches are carried out every month as prison guards fight to keep banned goods such as drugs, alcohol, cellphones and weapons out of inmates' hands.

New figures show boosted search powers are turning up a few dozen finds of illicit items a month - but with prison guards' hit rate as low as 1 per cent.

The latest figures reported by RNZ on Tuesday morning showed in May this year just over 1600 strip-searches in the country's prisons unearthed 21 smuggled items.

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An earlier Official Information Act response containing search record figures showed they were categorised as "reasonable cause" strip-searches, which by law means a prison officer must have information to suspect the inmate has contraband on them.

That could include smelling contraband like tobacco, witnessing a prisoner appearing to hide something on their person, a prisoner acting suspiciously, a detector dog indicating drugs, receiving information from other prisoners or from Corrections intelligence, which includes monitored jail phones.

With bootleg liquor and makeshift weapons among the contraband hunting challenges for prison authorities, foods like mustard, yeast, honey, curry powder, pepper and fruit juice are also banned.

Department of Corrections chief custodial officer Neil Beales said the small number of contraband items found during strip-searches could be largely attributed to their having a deterrent effect.

The searches could be carried out on prisoners returning from courts, and were also carried out of those prisoners transferred or received in prisons. "As this is a large number, there are many searches undertaken that do not result in contraband finds.

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"Over the last few years the number of these searches has dropped as we have used audio-visual links more between prisons and courts, thereby reducing the number of transfers to court and hence the numbers of searches.

"The searches are carried out with decency and sensitivity, and every effort is made to ensure that the person's privacy and dignity is maintained.

"As contraband may be concealed in various places, the strip-search may involve the prisoner being asked to lift their scrotum."

The Ombudsman's 2012 submission to a law change giving prison guards extended search powers labelled the requirement for a prisoner to squat to the ground so an officer could examine all orifices as "degrading", suggesting the technique was prone to abuse.

The Law Society also labelled them unnecessary, warning the searches could "dehumanise" prisoners.

However, Corrections Association president Alan Whitley said the strip-searches were an effective deterrent.

Methamphetamine, for example, could cause violent, drug-fuelled unrest in the prison, while smuggled cellphones could be used to arrange crimes from behind bars, and to contact victims, he said.

 

 - Stuff

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