Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Unreasonable and unnecessary

In 2013, the government passed a law allowing more frequent and more invasive stip searches of prisoners. The changes were criticised at the time as "needless, degrading and possibly dangerous" by the corrections union. Now, thanks to information released under the Official Information Act (via FYI, to boot), we know that that is true:

Prison guards are conducting thousands of strip searches but finding virtually no weapons or drugs.

The searches became more invasive three years ago, and at about the same time peaked at around 4500 a month, newly-released figures show.

But the hit rate on contraband in 2013 of 20 or so items a month is the same as now, even though strip search numbers have plunged by two thirds to 1500 a month across all prisons.

Looking at the raw data, the success rate even on "reasonable cause" searches (those where an officer claims to have "reasonable grounds for believing that the prisoner has in his or her possession an unauthorised item") is less than 2% (as of June last year; the success rate for other searches is about a sixth of that). But a success rate that low suggests that those "reasonable grounds" simply aren't. Instead, these searches are being conducted as a deterrent, or to degrade and humiliate prisoners and show them who is in control. But that is not what they are for and it is not lawful to use them for those purposes.

The other searches, legally justified by prisoner movements, aren't off the hook either. While the law says a prison officer "may" conduct a strip search under certain circumstances (basicly, when a prisoner has been moved or met with someone), that law must be interpreted through the lens of the Bill of Rights Act, which affirms the right of every person to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. That includes prisoners. And while the right is subject to "such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society", I don't think anyone could claim with a straight face that the mass strip-searching of people, making them squat naked while a guard looks up their arse with a torch, in order to find nothing, is "reasonable". Instead, it is the very definition of unreasonable.

Unreasonable searches. Degrading and humiliating treatment. That could be very expensive indeed for the government. To point out the obvious: this humiliation is an everyday experience for prisoners and there have been over 100,000 searches in the last five years. At $600 per strip search, the government could be looking at a bill of over $60 million. And when it arrives, we should lay it at the feet of one woman: Judith Collins.