‘We pay a very high price for being the families of prisoners’: the reality of strip searches in prisons

Organizations and movements denounce that, despite being forbidden in a number of states and being regarded as torture, strip searches are ongoing and violate rights. Children are often searched without the presence of the adult responsible for them

A revista vexatória segue acontecendo mesmo em estabelecimentos que possuem o scanner corporal, diz pesquisa (Foto: Marcello Casal Jr./Ag. Brasil) A revista vexatória segue acontecendo mesmo em estabelecimentos que possuem o scanner corporal, diz pesquisa (Foto: Marcello Casal Jr./Ag. Brasil)

Every week, thousands of people visiting family members in prison, mostly women and children, undergo strip searches, without suitably hygienic conditions. Even though there is state and national legislation expressly forbidding the practice and body scanners have been installed, strip searches are still a reality in Brazilian prisons.

In order to denounce the violations resulting from the practice, seven civil society organisations released the report ‘Strip searches: an ongoing practice’ on Thursday (10). The publication contains accounts from the families of inmates and shows the profile of these victims. Almost all the family members who answered were women and 68.1% were black, which is similar to the prison population itself, 55.4% of whom are also black (Infopen, 2017). 

Children are also part of the reality of prison visits, as relatives take them to see their parents and grandparents who are in prison, in order to maintain emotional ties. Most of the families (54.1%) state that their children have been submitted to embarrassing procedures and it is of note that in 23.1% of cases the right to have the person responsible for the child present was not granted. So, these searches were carried out by prison officers without an accompanying adult.

In one statement, a woman whose identity has been withheld recounts “we pay a high price for being the families of prisoners and I can say with conviction that strip searches are one of the biggest destroyers of families and are an attempt to punish us for crimes we have not committed”. Another denouncement in the publication says that the searches are not done behind closed doors, so naked visitors are exposed to the rest of the queue and to male prison officers.

An excerpt from a letter written by a mother about strip searches (Photo: Reproduction from the Criminal Justice Network)

“Strip searches are yet another procedure of perverse punishment which goes beyond the prison walls and particularly impacts the bodies of women visiting their families. Although our Constitution is clear that a person´s sentence cannot be extended to anyone other than the person who has been found guilty, (article 5, XLV) we see that the logic behind imprisonment is one of constant violation of the rights of inmates and their families and friends”. Says Sofia Fromer, a researcher on the project, Justice without Walls at the Institute of Land, Labour and Citizenship (ITTC).

The Supreme Federal Court (STF) is ruling on the validity of proof obtained during strip searches

In October 2020, the STF (Supreme Federal Court) starting a ruling to verify whether proof gathered by means of strip searches should be used in criminal courts. The ruling was suspended in 2021, following a request by the minister, Nunes Marques. 

Until now, five votes have been counted. Three ministers considered the practice of strip searches to be unacceptable and voted that it is unconstitutional to garner proof by this means. As he cast his vote, the rapporteur on the case, the minister, Edson Fachin reiterated that proof obtained in a search “is illegal and the excuse that there is no electronic equipment is not relevant”. 

Commenting on the ruling, the seven institutions that put together the report (The National Agenda for Decarceration, Conectas, Criminal Justice Network, Institute for Land, Labour and Citizenship, Centre for Prison Conditions of the São Paulo Public Defender´s Office, Prison Pastoral and the Institute for the Defence of the Right to Defence) stress that it is urgent for the STF to consider strip searches unacceptable under any circumstances, as the practice is deemed to be sexual violence and torture by a number of international organs.

“The accounts in the report show that although the installation of scanners is fundamental in combatting strip searchers, merely having them is not enough to stop violent discriminatory practices. Searches continue to happen even in establishments that have body scanners, for example. For this reason, it is urgent that the STF invalidate the garnering of proof through searches, without exception” it says in the publication. 

Find out more

Receive Conectas updates by email