Kitchener-Waterloo

End strip searches in Canadian prisons, Laurier researcher says

It's time to end the practice of strip searches at women's prisons and jails across Canada, according to a researcher at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Strip searches are traumatizing and ineffective, says PhD student Jessica Hutchison

Laurier researcher Jessica Hutchison says strip searches on female inmates are overused, traumatizing and ineffective. (iStock photo)

It's time to end the practice of strip searches at women's prisons and jails across Canada, according to a researcher at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Jessica Hutchison, a PhD student in the faculty of social work, studies the impact of strip searches on female inmates.

She's organized a panel discussion on Thursday evening in downtown Kitchener to share the stories of women who were strip searched while incarcerated.

"All it's doing is either traumatizing or re-traumatizing women who've experienced sexual assault before they even entered prison," said Hutchison.

Hutchison says many women in prison have been sexually assaulted before being convicted.

"Why does it make sense for the State to then force them to take off their clothes and perform intimate actions with private parts of their bodies?" she said.

'It's humiliating'

Heather Mason says she was strip searched more than 180 times over a four month span at the South West Detention Centre in Windsor.

"In provincial [jail] they're getting you fully naked," said Mason.

"You lift your arm if you have bigger breasts. You have to lift your breasts. They check your mouth, your ears your hair ... Sometimes they ask you to spread your cheeks."

"Every single time that you're strip searched after you've had a traumatic experience you're re-traumatized."

Mason will be speaking on the panel Thursday, along with Joey-Lynn Twins. 

As a sixties scoop and residential school survivor, Twins says being strip searched made her feel like she was a powerless child again.

"It's very degrading. It's humiliating and [an] injustice," said Twins.

She was in prison for more than 35 years at Prison for Women in Kingston and Grand Valley Institution for women in Kitchener.

Twins remembers being strip searched every time she left for powwows or family visits.

Are strip searches effective?

The idea behind strip searches is to stop the flow of drugs and weapons into prisons, according to Correctional Service Canada.

But Hutchison says she doesn't think they are an effective way of keeping drugs outside of prison walls.

She cites an example from Australia. According to Hutchison's research, a prison similarly sized to the Grand Valley Institution for Women had more than 18,000 strip searches performed on 200 women over a one year period and only one item of contraband was found.

In Hutchinson's small study of six women who had been strip searched in Canadian prisons and jails, she asked them why they thought they had been strip searched if the practice wasn't ultimately effective.

"All of them said it's power and control," said Hutchison.

CBC asked Correctional Service Canada for a response. In an email statement, the federal government agency said "detecting drugs and contraband is an ongoing and challenging task and remains of utmost importance to ensure the safety and security of our institutions."

"In addition to searches of offenders, visitors, buildings and cells we also use non-intrusive detection tools including ion scanners and detector dogs," the statement said.

Strip Searching in Women's Prisons: A Panel Discussion with People Who Used to be in Prison starts 5 p.m. at Laurier's social work building at 120 Duke Street W.

About the Author

Julianne Hazlewood is a multi-media journalist who's worked across the country at CBC newsrooms as a host, VJ, reporter and producer.