Female prisoners were subjected to strip searches in Tasmania's prison system 841 times over a seven month period, data has shown, with just three individual items of contraband found - tobacco and a lighter, tobacco and matchsticks, and opioid pain medication.
The data, released under Right to Information, has prompted the Human Rights Law Centre and Tasmanian Aboriginal Legal Service to call on the government to urgently end the practice and introduce body scanning technology.
There were also a further 400 women strip searched during the seven months from October 2020 to April 2021 upon entering the Launceston and Hobart reception prisons, where contraband data is not recorded.
Strip searches are carried out on prisoners entering or leaving the prison, occasionally before and after contact visits with family and others, and "any other time deemed necessary by a Superintendent".
The half-half method is used, preventing prisoners from being fully naked. The searches involve a visual cavity inspection.
The vast majority occur at the Mary Hutchinson Women's Prison.
Tasmanian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive officer Tracey Dillon said the data showed that the practice was unnecessary and retraumatising, particularly for Aboriginal women.
"They're treating them like second class citizens. People do wrong things, but they still need to be treated with dignity and respect," she said.
"For our women, if you look at the statistics in terms of domestic violence and sexual assault, they're high up in those stats. And when and if they have to into the prison system and be strip searched, it can be retraumatising.
"There are better ways to be able to do that. They should only be strip searched in exceptional circumstances."
In the RTI release, the Justice Department stated that "when presenting a person in custody to a watch-house facility, Tasmania Police must ensure that the person has been searched".
In May 2019, protocols were changed for juvenile offenders to give officers more discretion with low, medium and high risk categories for prisoners, removing the requirement for "mandatory" strip searches. It resulted in a significant reduction in the number of children being subjected to the practice, although pat down searches continued.
Such protocols are yet to be introduced in the adult system.
Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Monique Hurley said body scanning technology would alleviate the need for strip searches.
"X-ray body scanners are in place at some prisons, with similar technology to what you see at airports," she said.
"Technology like that is far more effective in identifying contraband than strip searching and has less of a retraumatising impact."
In March, the Tasmanian Government announced $1.3 million to introduce body scanning at Hobart and Launceston reception prisons, and Risdon Prison, but the announcement did not mention Mary Hutchinson Women's Prison.
A Department of Justice spokesperson said the women's prison would be included in the rollout, however, along with Ashley Youth Detention Centre.
"While personal searches are necessary to ensure the safety of staff and prisoners, the TPS is conscious of the impact personal searches have on individuals in custody and conduct them when it is necessary to do so and they are conducted in a way that minimises any potential distress," the spokesperson said.
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