The following is an op-ed from staff at the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which advocates with and on behalf of women and girls in prison.
Imagine being told by someone in a uniform, someone with near complete authority over your every need, to undress in front of them, while another uniform stands nearby; “remove your shirt,” throw it in a pile on the ground, and then “your bra” and then “your pants, now your underwear.” It gets worse: “lift your breasts, open your mouth, turn around, bend over, spread your cheeks, squat, cough.” If you’re menstruating, “remove your tampon.” As a formerly incarcerated woman told Jessica as part of a research study, “I remember there was a time when I was on my period and she told me to squat and cough and I felt so embarrassed because drops of blood came out of me and then they told me to clean it up.”
These commands are difficult to read, let alone carry out. Yet women must perform these tasks upon command nearly every day, every week in prisons across Canada. After women visit with their children, with their partners, with their parents; when they go to work, to church, or to a drumming circle. When women lose hope and attempt suicide or self-harm, they are strip searched before being confined and isolated under “observation” in a segregation cell. If a woman refuses to be strip searched, policy enables guards to cut the clothes from her body.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we are hard-pressed to understand how forcing women to remove their clothes and perform humiliating actions with intimate parts of their bodies is not understood as sexual assault. Outside of state power, this behaviour would be considered and treated as such. Women in prison are more likely than women in general society to have suffered sexual abuse and assault as children and adults. Nintey-one percent of Indigenous women and 86 percent of non-Indigenous women in prison have been sexually and/or physically abused prior to prison. Those who have been sexually assaulted before prison describe being strip searched as triggering, humiliating, degrading, and traumatizing. One of us—Alia—recalls feeling disgusting and dirty after being strip searched toward the beginning of her sentence, especially in the provincial jail. Over time, however, she numbed out and felt like her body didn’t matter at all. The impacts on women’s self-worth are far reaching, and last for years following prison.
The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has managed to remain in the shadows, away from public scrutiny, allowing these degrading and (re)traumatizing strip searches to continue largely unquestioned. CSC would have us believe strip searches are necessary for the safety and security of prisons and yet they uncover little, if any, contraband. Alia knows this first-hand: after undergoing 44 months in prison and countless strip searches, prison authorities found just one piece of contraband on her—a ring given to her by a woman she had grown close to over three years of surviving prison together. Gifts between women in prison are not allowed in policy and can result in a charge, so the ring was technically what CSC defines as contraband.
Evidence suggests Alia’s case is not unique among female prisoners. An Access to Information Request of an Australian prison with a daily average of 200 prisoners (similar to the Grand Valley Prison in Kitchener, Ontario) found that of 18,889 strip searches, done over a one-year period in the early 2000s, only one item of contraband was found. CAEFS submitted our own access to information request in 2017 to obtain statistics on strip searching in Canadian prisons; to date we have yet to receive a response. If strip searching is effective at finding drugs and weapons, as CSC claims, then they should be forthcoming with the data to substantiate these claims. While it’s true that many women in prison struggle with drug addiction, it is well-known that women self-medicate to cope with experiences of trauma. So, punitive and traumatizing responses, like strip searching, can actually drive up drug use.
Canada has an opportunity to be a world leader and eliminate this archaic practice in prisons for women. We hope that by shedding light on the harm done by these state-sanctioned sexual assaults, people will #HearMeToo and demand an end to the use of this traumatizing practice.
Savannah Gentile is the Director of Advocacy and Legal Issues for the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which advocates with and on behalf of women and girls in prison.
Alia Pierini is a Regional Advocate for CAEFS and a formerly incarcerated woman.
Jessica Hutchison is a Regional Advocate for CAEFS and a PhD student studying strip searching at Wilfrid Laurier University.
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