Female prisoners are still being subjected to “excessive strip-searching”, a new inspection has found – even though many of the women have been victims of physical and sexual violence in the past.
HMP Peterborough houses both men and women – the only prison in England and Wales to do so – and the inspection found that “instability on the male side was affecting the prison’s ability to focus sufficiently on the relatively more settled female prison”.
This has led to “very high use of force” and “overuse of strip-searching”. Use of force was at “more than double the level usually seen in women’s prisons”, the report found, and de-escalation processes had not been followed. In nine weeks, 70 women had been strip-searched – with many staff “unclear” and unable to explain why many of these incidents had happened.
Peter Clarke, who led the investigation, said it was “particularly disappointing” that trauma had not been taken into consideration. According to charity Women in Prison, 46% of women in prison report having suffered domestic violence; 53% report experiencing emotional, physical and sexual abuse during childhood. 65% of female inmates in HMP Peterborough reported feeling depressed on arrival at the prison; more than a quarter reported feeling suicidal. Two thirds had mental health problems.
The report also found that 60% of women in the prison had “felt unsafe at some point” since arriving there.
“Strip searching is a known risk for retraumatising vulnerable women, many of whom will have experienced sexual or physical abuse. Yet the inspectorate found numerous examples where its use was entirely unwarranted,” said Jenny Earle, who leads the Prison Reform Trust’s Transforming Lives programme.
“Peterborough’s policy of routine strip searching should be revised as a matter of urgency, and the prison brought into line with existing good policy and practice for working with vulnerable women in prison.”
Women are often subject to abuse within prisons. A 2009 article in the Guardian, in which women told their stories, found that “staff preyed on vulnerability”, and that abuse was “part and parcel of prison life” and “very intimidating”.
“If you are not going to buy into the approaches made by staff, you will not progress, you will not get the good jobs, or get on the courses that will help you get early release,” one former inmate wrote. A 2016 Howard League report found that 5% of inmates were victims of coerced sex; the number is likely to be much higher.