In Australia, Aboriginal women and girls disproportionately sent to prison and jail are disproportionately strip-searched. We know. What are we going to do about it?

The Alexander Maconochie Centre 

Excessive strip-searching shines light on discrimination of Aboriginal women in the criminal justice system”. An article with that headline appeared yesterday. While the research and argument of the article is unimpeachable, one wonders about the shining light. The discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women by and in the Australian so-called criminal justice program is a longstanding open secret. In 2018, Human Rights Watch issued a report, which noted, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population, and 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous peers.” A version of that statement, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population”, had appeared in major reports in 201020112012201320142015,2016, and 2017. Now it’s 2021, and where are we … and who are we?

Last year, the Redfern Legal Centre reported that police in New South Wales continued to strip search children, some as young as 11 years old. In one year alone, NSW police conducted 96 strip searches of children. To no one’s surprise, those strip searches disproportionately assaulted Aboriginal children. This was no surprise, because strip searches generally target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and especially women and girls. Not only was the practice continuing, it was actually rising in number for Aboriginal children. Redfern is pursuing a landmark class action suit against the New South Wales police. While that would be important, these searches have occurred, for decades, in plain sight. Where are we … and who are we?

In January of this year, former Western Australia and New South Wales police came forward to discuss their experiences as police officers. They described a routine, and cynical, process of boosting arrest numbers by targeting Aboriginal communities, and especially children. Although strip searches are supposed to be only for “exceptional and extreme circumstances”, Aboriginal children were routinely strip searched. Their crime, their exceptionality, their extreme circumstance, was their bodies, their culture, their identity. One police officer remembered that strip searching a 10-year-old Aboriginal child was “one of the worst moments” of his eight-year career as a police officer. What was that moment for that 10-year-old child, one wonders, and where is he … and who is he now?

In March, it was reported that, earlier in the year, a 37-year-old Aboriginal woman was strip searched by four guards, in riot gear, in front of male detainees. Why? Because. This occurred at the Alexander Maconochie Centre, in the Australian Capital Territory. The Australian government boasts that the Alexander Maconochie Centre is “a human rights compliant” facility. Aboriginal leaders disagree. So does the woman, who wrote, “Here I ask you to remember that I am a rape victim, so you can only imagine the horror, the screams, the degrading feeling, the absolute fear and shame I was experiencing.”

Here I ask you to remember. 

In the first week of July, the Human Rights Legal Centre reported that from October 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021, there had been 208 strip searches conducted on women detainees at the same Alexander Maconochie Centre. Of those, 121, or 58%, were performed on Aboriginal women. At that time, Aboriginal women comprised 44% of the women held at the Alexander Maconochie Centre. Just being Aboriginal women made them exceptional and extreme. Again to no one’s surprise, of the 208 searches, three resulted in the discovery of contraband. The others were the price Aboriginal women pay for being Aboriginal women in Australia.

The lack of surprise is the point. In 2003, Debbie Kilroy, Director of Sisters Inside Inc, wrote, “Prisoners are strip-searched because it is a highly effective way to control women … Routine and random strip-searching is conducted in order to punish women and to control them.” The strip searching of women in Australia’s prisons is routine, but hardly random, in that it targets Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls, who are sent in disproportionate numbers into “human rights compliant’ prison and jail hellholes. We know. We’ve known for a long time. What are we going to do about it?

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Andrew Finch / City News)

Strip searches: a daily, degrading routine I have been subjected to since the tender age of 14

Strip searches: a daily, degrading routine I have been subjected to since the tender age of 14. Less than a month into being 14, I was still experiencing some pretty awkward, uncomfortable, and funky things going on with my pubescent body, and I hadn’t yet fully embraced that I was, indeed, very much a woman. These factors made my first few strip searches all the more excruciating.

I remember how terrified I was, being certified as an adult and being transferred from a juvenile facility to an adult county jail. It felt surreal. Almost immediately after my arrival I was stripped naked and placed on suicide watch– also naked, but for a scratchy turtle suit.

When I first arrived, a female officer brought me into a small, dank, dungeon-like room with harsh lighting and ordered me to take off all my clothes. Dumbfounded, I just stared at her for a moment until she clearly repeated herself. I quickly realized that I didn’t have much of a choice, and I found her uniform to be quite intimidating. Trembling, I went through the motions of removing my clothes until I stood before her, the totality of my flesh bared. I was suddenly hyperaware of my hammering heart, the blood roaring in my eyes, my flushed cheeks, the cold sweat trickling down my back and under my breasts. I felt so exposed, so humiliated. My eyes were squeezed shut, my fists clenched at my side, my head down: I was deeply ashamed of my nakedness, silently apologizing for it. With my eyes shut I swore could feel the searing heat of her eyes roving across my body, dissecting it, though logically I knew she did no such thing.

I recall the lead in my stomach, the bile in my throat as I was ordered to open my mouth, raise my tongue and run my fingers along my gums. Reach my arms to the ceiling and pick up my breasts, lift up one foot at a time while wiggling my toes, and finally turn around with my back to the officer, squat down, spread my butt cheeks, and cough.

Afterwards, she left the room, allowing me to change in privacy, though I viewed it as giving me the chance to regain my nonexistent composure. She noticed the tears that burned in my eyes, my quivering lip. I was in neither psychologically nor emotionally equipped to handle the experience that brought me to prison, nor the ones that followed it.

Strip searches continued to be as humiliating, degrading, and difficult throughout my year in county jail– I was always a reluctant participant. After I pleaded guilty and was sent to state prison, eventually things began to change as I adjusted and adapted. The sad reality is that I became numb to the dehumanization I was regularly experiencing. Eventually, strip searches ceased to perturb and humiliate me to the extent they once did. I came to accept them as one of the unfavorable facets of my life in prison; I became desensitized to objectification.

One should never stop being bothered by something as degrading as strip searches, no matter how frequently one is subjected to them. However, it is important to realize that it is one awful and inevitable aspect of being incarcerated that, until it is amended, must be tolerated. Sometimes, courage isn’t always having the loudest voice: it is knowing the difference between when to remain silent and when to speak up and stand up for what is right.

So I will continue to endure squatting and coughing if it means I’ll be able to see my loved ones, friends, and family in the prison’s visiting room. We all need to make sacrifices sometimes, compromise our values for a greater purpose– even those of us on the Inside.

 

(Photo Credit:  Ms. Magazine)

Devyani Vs. Sangeeta: Domestic Workers’ Rights

Sangeeta Richard

The recent strip search, including cavity search, of a female Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, in New York, raised a hue and cry in India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, including much of the administration and the public, denounced the U.S. act as demeaning, primarily because a body search of a female is considered dishonorable by Indians for it brings shame upon the woman, her family and the country, and secondly the Indian court would not consider a salary issue between an employer and her maid tantamount to a crime that necessitated a strip search.

But we need to look at some underlying blind spots this issue glaringly reveals:

1. While Devyani’s experience of undergoing a strip search is demeaning, I believe that such a treatment of any woman in the U.S. who is in police custody or in customs/immigration, whether the crime is unremarkable or severe, as unacceptable. We have not protested enough about strip searches of women especially since such searches are now placed within the umbrella of security and anti-terrorism jurisdiction.

2. While there is now a history of protest to raise minimum wage in the U.S. and the pay discrepancy between men and women is a hot button issue, brought to light by the Lilly Ledbetter bill signed by President Obama in 2009, enforcing this in reality has been tough. But many grassroots movements, such as Working Families and Occupy, are making their mark in trying to make employers conscious of pay gaps and inequities. While Devyani’s lawyer may argue that she has done everything legal under the contract with the maid, Sangeeta Richard, nevertheless, the reaction of the Indian government and a mortified public brings up the fact that Indians have internalized the notion that since most of middle class has maids and there are no unions to protect their wages or their treatment, that there is nothing shocking in the continuation of this practice when domestic workers work in Indian households locally or abroad. The protest about wages and treatment of domestic workers both local and migrant is heard loudest only among feminist organizations. Governments have not taken it seriously; there is no proper jurisdiction regarding wages for domestic work, therefore the issue prevails in the shadows.

3. The irony of the Devyani case is that Devyani is Dalit herself—the oppressed class in India’s caste system. The Dalit movement began during the time of India’s nationalist movement for Independence from British rule. Although the reservation system (similar to Affirmative Action) was put in place to address the rights of the underprivileged castes in the caste hierarchy, nevertheless the oppression of Dalits continues. Devyani’s family is Dalit, but well to do, and she is a diplomat employed by the Indian government. It is indeed a lesson in the nature of oppression to see one who has risen to a privileged position in terms of economic class and status to pay a low wage to a woman she hired to work in her household. Of course, since this act is an allegation until proven, and Devyani may after all be innocent, nevertheless this case brings to light two questions: Should foreign diplomats be allowed to get away with anything because they have diplomatic immunity? Should the U.S. use cavity search and strip search on women in immigration violation cases? How can we separate wage issues from labor trafficking cases, since labor trafficking is another charge brought against Devyani? How can we take personal responsibility to make sure someone we know is not being paid below minimum wage?

 

(Photo Credit: Times of India)

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)