Child prisoners lose more than their clothes in strip-searches


Joseph Scholes, 16, hanged himself in custody, in March 2002

Over the weekend, Carolyne Willow revealed that when it comes to the treatment of child prisoners in the United Kingdom, Charles Dickens is alive and well.

Willow looked at admittedly incomplete records for 21 months leading up to December 2012. These records cover 25 institutions, 15 child prisons and 10 `secure’ children’s homes. The children are anything but secure … in the homes and in the prisons.

In the past 21 months, child prisoners suffered 43,960 strip-searches. The real number is higher, but the State can only do so much to document its abuses. For example, “The data does not reveal what proportion of the children were subjected to intimate cavity searches.”

The numbers are actually worse than they seem, because they tend to be concentrated in some institutions and not others. So, Ashfield, a private prison run by Serco, holds a maximum of 400 boys, and performs an average of 399 strip-searches … every month.  At the other end, three of the “secure children’s homes” never conducted a single strip-search in the entire 21 month period.

Some of the children are as young as 12-years-old. Think about that. Think about a 12-year-old being forced to strip naked in front of a crew of adult strangers. Think about a 12-year-old having her clothes ripped and often cut from her body. Think about a 12-year-old being forcibly restrained while being stripped naked. You don’t have to think about. You don’t have to imagine. Here’s what the children say.

One girl said: “It makes me feel upset, embarrassed and really violating because I have been raped and it’s awful being strip-searched.” Another girl explained, “When I had my first full search I was 14, it was horrible as I have been sexually abused and I didn’t feel comfortable showing my body as this brought back memories.”

Who are these children? Forty-eight per cent of the children who were subjected to strip-searches were children from Black and minority ethnic communities. To no one’s surprise.

Ironically, or tragically, two years ago this month, the State announced the end of routine strip-searches for juveniles. Those were replaced by … necessary strip-searches? And what’s the necessity? Of 44,000 violations by the State of children’s bodies and persons, something illicit was found a whopping 275 times. The overwhelming contraband of choice was tobacco. Drugs were found 15 times. No guns, no knives, no explosives, no big deal. No need.

All of this is happening while the incarceration rates of children have actually declined. But the restraints continue, the indignities post-release continue, and the violations of dignity and person continue. Some children, like 14-year-old Adam Rickwood and 16-year-old Joseph Scholes, commit suicide, largely in response to the abuse and what it triggers.

It’s not irony. It’s tragedy. And it’s also not rocket science. It’s injustice. First, the strip-searches must stop. Without adjective. Routine. Necessary. Strip the language of its obscurantist deceit rather than strip children of their dignity and their personhood. Second, reconsider the use of prison and `secure homes’ for children. If people knew the children were going to be violated, would they send those children into the system? Would you? Remember, a strip-search takes more than the clothes off a child. It robs their dignity, their hope, their last bit of trust in adults, their last bit of trust in others more generally. It turns children’s dreams into so much trash by telling the dreamers, the children, that they are less than nothing.


(Photo Credit: The Guardian / PA / Empics)