Insufficient action to implement strip search safeguards for children and young people in detention

13 May 2022

A report of the NSW Ombudsman, Paul Miller, has been tabled in Parliament today (Strip searches in youth detention: a follow-up report under section 27 of the Ombudsman Act 1974) calling on the Government to explain why it has not implemented his recommendations to enact safeguards for the strip searching of children and young people by prison officers.

The Ombudsman’s recommendations were made in a June 2021 special report, Strip searches conducted after an incident at Frank Baxter Youth Justice Centre. The Ombudsman investigated strip searches of 3 young people conducted by Corrective Services NSW officers, who had been called in by Youth Justice NSW to deal with a disturbance at the centre.

The Ombudsman found that the searches were oppressive. He found that they were disproportionate to the risk posed and did not consider the potential impact of the searches on the detainees. The appropriateness of conducting less intrusive searches was not considered, and the privacy and dignity of the detainees was not sufficiently maintained.

‘Strip searches of adolescents are intrusive, can be humiliating, degrading and distressing, and have the potential to cause trauma, anxiety, fear, shame and guilt,’ said Mr Miller. 'The traumatic impact of a strip search can be exacerbated by the searched individual’s history and life experience.’

The changes recommended by the Ombudsman included:

  • legislating to prohibit strip searches of young people in detention being conducted routinely, in the absence of reasonable suspicion of contraband and/or a risk to health and safety
  • legislating to prohibit fully naked body strip searches of children and young people in detention (instead, young people in detention can be searched by requiring the removal of half their clothing at the time, first top half then bottom half, so that the young person is never completely naked)
  • requiring a search to be conducted using the least intrusive method required to achieve its purpose
  • requiring a search to involve the removal of no more clothes and no more visual inspection than is reasonably necessary for the purpose of the search
  • requiring strip searches to be conducted in private, but appropriate digital records and reports of searches to be made and kept.

A joint response by the responsible ministers (the then Minister for Families and Community Services, the Hon. Alister Henskens SC MP, and the then Minister for Counter Terrorism and Corrections, the Hon. Anthony Roberts MP) in August 2021 rejected 5 of the Ombudsman’s 9 recommendations. None of the recommendations for legislative safeguards were supported.

‘I am not satisfied that sufficient steps have been taken in reasonable time to implement the recommendations,’ Mr Miller said today. ‘Legislation has not been prepared, introduced or enacted to give effect to the recommendations.’

Under the Ombudsman Act 1974, the responsible Minister is now required to make a statement to Parliament responding to the Ombudsman’s report within 12 days.