Investigation into strip searches in youth justice facilities

08 Jun 2021

A special report of the NSW Ombudsman has been tabled in Parliament today, following an investigation into the strip searching of 3 young people at Frank Baxter Youth Justice Centre in 2019.

The searches were conducted in a way that is allowed of adults in the adult prison system, but which is generally not allowed of young people in youth justice centres.

In youth justice centres, the only strip searches that are ordinarily permitted are ‘partially clothed searches’. These involve the young person first removing all of the top half, and then all of the bottom half, of their clothing. This means that the young person’s entire body can be subject to visual inspection, but the young person is never completely naked.

However, the 3 young people in this case were subjected to the kind of fully naked strip search that is usually permitted only in the adult correctional system.

The NSW Ombudsman, Paul Miller, found that there was legal authority for the strip searches in this case.

This is because the searches were conducted by the Corrective Services NSW (CSNSW) Security Operations Group (SOG), which ordinarily works in the adult correctional system and whose role includes responding to riots and other disturbances in adult correctional centres.

Following a MoU between CSNSW and Youth Justice NSW, which was entered into shortly before the Frank Baxter incident, the SOG can also be called in to quell riots and disturbances in Youth Justice centres.

The MoU also authorises the SOG officers to exercise the same powers in respect of young people as they can exercise in respect of adults in the adult correctional system. This includes the power to strip search them in a way that would not ordinarily be permitted in youth justice centres.

However, although the searches were legally authorised by the MoU, the Ombudsman found that the manner of conducting those searches in this case was not justified by the circumstances and was therefore oppressive. The Ombudsman also found that it was wrong to conduct the strip searches in view of operational CCTV cameras.

The Ombudsman stated that young people in detention should never be subject to these kinds of strip searches.

‘It is indisputable that there will be circumstances where it is necessary to conduct searches of young people in youth justice centres,’ said Mr Miller.

‘In some cases, a search may require the removal of clothing. However, the process for deciding to conduct a search and selecting which search is conducted must be proportionate. The decision maker should consider the impact of the search on the young person, where possible taking into consideration any particular circumstances of that person.’

The incident that led to the searches occurred at Frank Baxter Youth Justice Centre in November 2019 when 3 young people climbed onto the roof of several buildings, gained access to building materials and tools, and refused to come down. While they were on the roof, they made a series of serious threats to the safety of staff.

After the CSNSW officers entered the centre and spoke to the 3 young people, they came down from the roof without any use of force and with no further incident. The young people were handcuffed and officers conducted a pat down search of each of them. No weapons or contraband was found. The young people were taken to cells where CCTV was in operation and subjected to full naked body strip searches. Again, nothing was found.

The Ombudsman’s investigation ‘did not consider, nor do we make any adverse comment about, the decision to call in CSNSW officers or their handling of the disturbance itself,’ said Mr Miller.

No adverse findings were made against any of the individual SOG officers involved in the searches.

The report recommends that the Government consider legislative amendments to provide that:

  • Young people in detention should never be subjected to full-naked-body strip searches, including by CSNSW officers.
  • Searches  (such as pat down searches and partially clothed strip searches) should otherwise only be conducted when necessary, in private, with the removal of no more clothing than is reasonably necessary for the search, and with other appropriate safeguards in place.
  • Youth Justice NSW should maintain a digital record of all searches of young people that involve the removal of some or all of a young person’s clothing.

The report also recommends that SOG officers be trained about how to conduct searches of young people in line with Youth Justice NSW search policy and procedure.

The Ombudsman has also recommended that Corrective Services and Youth Justice NSW undertake a comprehensive comparison of all of the powers (including other use of force powers) that CSNSW officers have in the adult correctional system with those that ordinarily apply in the Youth Justice system, and then determine whether any of the CSNSW powers should be disapplied or modified when those officers may be called in to the Youth Justice system.

Read the full report.

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