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State-sanctioned sexual assault: the injustice of strip searching women in prisons

Introduction by Croakey: The Northern Territory and Queensland Governments are being called to address “inhumane” and “horrendous” conditions following recent reports of human rights violations in prisons and youth detention settings.

Overcrowding and inadequate infrastructure – including lack of air-conditioning – in Alice Springs Correctional Centre were highlighted during heatwave temperatures following the attempted escape of prisoners on Boxing Day, according to the National Indigenous Times.

Alarm bells have also been sounded over terrible conditions in Cairns police watch house, with reports of children not being provided sufficient medical attention, legal support or food, according to The Guardian. Additional concerns have been raised about the health and wellbeing of children in the watch house, with reports of self-harm, injuries and illnesses.

Recent findings by the Productivity Commission show that 40 percent of all young Australians (10–17-year-olds) in detention are in Queensland.

Below, two founding members of the National Network of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, Debbie Kilroy and Tabitha Lean, say much more needs to be done to abolish strip searching across all Australian prisons, watch houses and youth cages, following the Queensland Human Rights Commission’s recent review of policies, procedures and practices in relation to strip searches of women in Queensland prisons.

Human rights advocates Kilroy and Lean share their experiences with Australia’s incarceration system, calling for governments across Australia to abolish strip searching in prisons, watch houses and youth cages.


Debbie Kilroy and Tabitha Lean write:

Sisters Inside and the National Network of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls call for an immediate end to state sanctioned sexual assault of women and girls in prison.

We also call for the wholesale abolishing of strip searching across all jurisdictions in all carceral settings, including prisons, watch houses and youth cages.

While we are pleased that the Queensland Human Rights Commission has finally caught up with our three-decades long call for the abolition of strip searching in prisons and watch houses, we say this does not go far enough.

Long history of violence

Strip searching women and girls in prisons has long been a violent and ethically fraught practice within the criminal punishment system. This procedure, which involves a person being forced to remove all their clothing and undergo an invasive and traumatic inspection of their body cavities, has long been defended as a necessary security measure by the carceral state.

Yet, the evidence overwhelmingly has proven that it is neither necessary nor effective.

Sisters Inside has argued for more than three decades that strip searches amount to sexual assault perpetrated by the state, akin to solitary confinement, with adverse effects on women and potential for abuse of power. Mandatory strip searches are highly (re)traumatising, particularly for women who are survivors of sexual assault.

Strip searching involves behaviour that would be considered abhorrent and criminal in the wider community but is routinely carried out with impunity within police stations, courthouse cells and prisons.

This practice is particularly traumatic for criminalised women and girls, especially those with a history of sexual assault, and becomes even more distressing when carried out or observed by male officers.

Almost all women in the criminal punishment system have experienced multiple forms of violence throughout their lives. Literature overwhelmingly acknowledges this, and statistics demonstrate that the majority of incarcerated women in Australia have experienced various forms of gender-based violence.

Studies consistently (here, here and here, for example) show that:

  • Up to 98 percent of female prisoners have been subjected to physical abuse.
  • Over 70 percent have been victims of domestic and family violence (DFV).
  • Up to 90 percent have endured sexual violence.
  • Up to 90 percent have survived childhood sexual assault.

Additionally, almost all girls in children’s prisons have been sexually assaulted.

Violation of human rights

Women have often been denied their fundamental human rights, starting from childhood and continuing through their interactions with the criminal punishment system.

In addition to more obvious forms of violence, such as sexual assault and domestic violence, state-sponsored violence, including sexual assault and coercive control within prison settings, has also played a role.

It’s crucial to recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls disproportionately experience this violence and human rights violation.

However, this aspect is inadequately addressed by most research papers by the state.

To comprehensively address the impact of the criminal punishment system on women and girls who have experienced violence, it is essential to consider both the gender-based and race-based dimensions of violence and state-sanctioned actions.

Racism and sexism are dominant factors in the systemic response to violence against women and girls in this country. Michael McGowan reported in The Guardian in 2020 that Aboriginal people of all ages are disproportionately subjected to strip searches by police.

The Melbourne-based Human Rights Legal Centre (HRLC) released data demonstrating that Aboriginal women prisoners are strip searched at alarmingly higher rates than non-Aboriginal women prisoners.

Alarmingly, but not surprisingly, we witnessed a 16-year-old girl having to fight to prevent the footage of her (unlawful) strip search from being aired in court. This young woman was 15 at the time she was stripped in the presence of male officers.

Sisters Inside have long argued that strip searching infringes on the human rights of women in prison, limiting their ability to connect with the outside world.

Women prisoners are subjected to strip searches before and after visits with family, children, friends, or even their support workers and lawyers. This can lead to women refusing visits from their children due to the distress and trauma caused by the searches, effectively hindering the maintenance of relationships and their access to legal, healthcare services and other support services.

First-hand accounts of violence

Following are first-hand accounts of our experiences in the ‘injustice’ system. These accounts – also published in a book chapter, Abolition as a decolonial project – are crucial to our ways of being and doing to share our expertise. In doing so, we offer our stories and experiences to you.

Contained within each story is our strength. Each word we offer is a gift. We do not speak to offer ourselves up for your judgement, instead we speak from place of power and presence. We speak to liberate our sisters and kin. We speak to free us all from the bonds that hold us.

Tabitha Lean writes: 

The next thing I knew I was being stripped. I stood barefooted on the hard concrete floor completely naked with two officers standing before me. I was very aware of everything and nothing around me. One officer told me to spread my legs, squat, and cough. I looked at them, unsure of what they were asking. They repeated the instruction as if I was deaf. Their partner eyed my body up and down. I felt so exposed. I became super conscious of every bump and line and bulge on my frame. I willed my body to fold into itself as if I had some forcefield inside of me that could be engaged to protect me from their leers – but I was not a superhero.

As I shuffled my feet to shoulder width apart, one of the officers narrowed their eyes because they had spied something. It was the tampon string hanging between my legs. “Remove that,” they said gesturing to my crotch. “What?” I whispered. “Take the fucking tampon out.” A small cry escaped my lips. I felt humiliated. I reached down and yanked the bloody tampon out of my vagina. I could not lift my eyes from the ground. The tampon dangled from my fingers like a dead mouse hanging from a cat’s mouth.

I did not know what to do with it and this amused the officer, who started to laugh. Their laughter was contagious, and it set the other officer into a state of mirth. I just stood there pathetically trembling; naked, legs apart, with a used tampon hanging from my bloodied fingertips while they laughed at me.

The sequence of events that followed haunts me in the midnight hours. From being forced to shower in front of two strangers who stood with their arms crossed over their chest and their eyes firmly planted on my chest, to having my hair ploughed through and inspected for lice, to being warned gruffly not to “fuck anyone” inside, to being called a liar at every turn, I honestly believed I was going to be killed in those first 12 hours. Not killed by other prisoners, but by the people in uniforms. The officers.

Debbie Kilroy writes:

It was 1975, the first time I went to prison. I was just a child, and I was in my school uniform the day they took me away. All I had in my possession that day was two clothes pegs. I remember that clearly because as I emptied my pockets on admission and turned them out, all that I had on me was two little plastic pegs. I was stripped and showered with an antiseptic as if they had to wash the filth off me. I was given prison-issued clothes, grey shorts and a t-shirt – the colour of them matching the institutional bleakness that surrounded me.

The humiliation ratcheted up when they placed a nit cap on my head to treat me for head lice I did not even have. You had to wear that for three whole days. None of this had anything to do with infection control or germ prevention but everything to do with shaming and control.

On admission, every girl had to have a gynaecological exam. They said it was so we could swim in the swimming pool. I was stripped and dressed in a white medical gown, then placed on an exam bed, where they inserted the cold, hard speculum. I was a virgin, like almost every single girl in that place. This was their policy of so-called care. This was state-sanctioned sexual assault, and I was just 14 years old.

Angela Davis, another member of the network, writes:

A routine feature of the intake process was the strip search, shower, and internal search during which a male doctor jammed his fingers into the women’s vaginas and rectums. This happened not only on intake but, as I later learned, every time an incarcerated person left the House of D and every time they returned.

The doctor was creepy – and women in the jail told me later that this was his only duty. Like them, I found the experience to be quite weird and deeply disturbing, but it was not until many years later that I began to understand it as normalised and routinised gender violence.

Unjust justifications

Justifications given by carceral authorities for strip searching – such as preventing contraband (especially drugs) from entering prisons, ensuring the safety of incarcerated women and staff, and acting as a deterrent – do not hold up to scrutiny.

Data from Queensland Corrective Services in 2017 showed that strip searches were conducted 16,258 times, but instances of finding “contraband” were extremely rare, accounting for only 0.01 percent of cases.

Some records indicated items found, but they often included vague descriptions like “suspicious behaviour”, “cuts to forearm”, “hair clips”, or minor infractions like “non-compliance”.

The supposed contraband was harmless items as described, demonstrating that strip searching is not primarily about security but rather a means of social control, degrading women, and fulfilling quotas.

Drastic reforms needed

Regarding drug prevention, data showed that when reception and visits were separately recorded, almost no contraband was found, consistent with findings from the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in Victoria, suggesting that drugs likely enter prisons through other means.

A three-year pilot by Corrections Victoria demonstrated that reducing strip searches (from 21,000 to 14,000 annually) led to a 40 percent reduction in positive urine tests and did not result in an increase in contraband seizures.

This suggests that strip searching is not justified for the stated reasons and can be misused by prison officers, even with administrative reforms. This is why we call for drastic changes, not minor reforms that we know the state favour.

Strip searching is sexual assault by state. Strip searching by state authorities is a violation of women’s and girls’ rights, causing significant emotional trauma and disruption to our lives.

It is a practice that has nothing to do with actual security concerns, rather with maintaining control and exercising authority over us as incarcerated individuals and it must be abolished across this nation as a matter of urgency.

Our position is firm.

After all, we are the ones who have experienced this degradation, this violence, this assault.

Our voices, our experiences and our advocacy in this area over the past decades should be at the forefront of government policy decisions, because there should be nothing about us, without us.

Author details

Debbie Kilroy OAM was first criminalised at the age of 13 and spent over two decades in and out of women’s and children’s prisons. Driven to end the criminalisation and imprisonment of girls and women, Debbie established Sisters Inside, as well as her law firm, Kilroy & Callaghan Lawyers. An unapologetic abolitionist, Debbie’s activism work centres on dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex and all forms of carceral control and exile. With a firm belief that there should be ‘nothing about us without us’, Debbie established the National Network of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls to centre the voices, experiences and aspirations of criminalisation and imprisonment women and girls in order to change the face of justice in this country.

Tabitha Lean is an activist, poet and storyteller. An abolition activist determined to disrupt the colonial project and abolish the prison industrial complex, she’s filled with rage, channelling every bit o