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Body searches in place of detention

30-09-2006 by Hernán Reyes

Body searches should be used only after all other means of investigation have been employed. Doctors have no role to play in strip searches. In exceptional cases, when requested by the authorities or the prisoner for a valid reason, their participation in body-cavity searches may be justified. In such cases, the doctor’s role will be that of medical expert, which should not compromise his role as care provider.

Whether carried out for security reasons or to prevent illicit objects or substances from being smuggled in or out, body searches are as closely linked to the realities of prison life as are handcuffs or barred windows. Of course, searches are also performed in many places outside prisons (at airports, security booths set up for special events, entrances to certain buildings, etc.), but they all have one important factor in common: they are carried out by security or police personnel and not by medical staff. This article describes the various situations in prisons requiring searches – particularly body searches – and examines exceptional circumstances in which a doctor’s participation may be justified. It draws attention to the guidelines for body searches drawn up for medical staff by the World Medical Association and other bodies. Finally, it illustrates the main points developed here with concrete examples drawn from real detention situations.