Cell searches

Any area you have access to in prison can be searched. This includes your cell.

Prison Service Instruction 09/2016 Cell, Area and Vehicle Searching says that the searching of cells must be carried out professionally and in a way to make sure that prisoners receive fair treatment.

It also says that it is important that prisoners’ “individual circumstances are taken into account, and reasonable adjustments are made.”

How often are searches carried out?

The High Security Estate must have a programme of routine searches in place. This is decided with the Director of the High Security Estate.

Other prisons must put in place a suitable programme of searching depending on what they think the risks and security needs of the prison are.

All prisons must carry out a search if they get any information that there might be an unauthorised item or items in a cell.

Types of cell searches

There are two basic types of cell searches - a Routine Cell Search and a Routine-Plus Cell Search:

  • A Routine search is a level-A rub down search and a cell search, with no property record check
  • A Routine-Plus search is a full body search and may also involve a property record check, in addition to a cell search

Routine-Plus searches must be done regularly in the High Security Estate. Outside the High Security Estate, they should be done according to local needs. Generally, Routine-Plus searches are carried out in any intelligence-led search.

In the female estate full body searches should only be carried out if there is a specific security concern.

There is more information about rub downs and full body searches in PSI 07/2016 Searching of the Person.

What happens during the search?

Before the search takes place, you should be told that it is about to take place and what type of body search will be done.

Officers can only search your cell without you there if they have information about unauthorised articles in your cell, or if there is an operational emergency in the prison. This is called an intelligence-led search.

When carrying out the search, prison staff must think about whether items in your cell could be made into something that might be harmful, either to yourself or someone else.

If there is any doubt as to whether an item in the cell belongs to a prisoner or not, officers must check it against the Property Card. 

When the search is finished, officers should leave the cell as tidy as possible.

Can legal documents be searched? 

In 2001 there was a Court case that said that normally prisoners should be present when officers are searching their legal documents.

Before the search, you should be asked if you have any legal documents. If you do, officers can check to make sure that they are in fact legal documents and that there are no unauthorised items among your legal papers. They should try to do this without reading the papers.

You should then be given a choice about whether you want to leave the documents in your cell in a sealed plastic pouch, or take them with you while the search takes place.

Under certain circumstances however, officers can search your legal papers without you present. They can do this for example, if the prison has an operational emergency or if they have information about a specific security threat. Officers doing the search must obtain permission from a senior manager first.

Can religious items be searched?

You should be asked at the beginning of the search whether you have any religious items.

If you say yes, these items can then be searched by the officers, instead of by search dogs. After such items are searched, you should be offered a plastic pouch to put the items in - doing this means that the items will therefore not come into contact with any search dogs that might be used during the search.

In some cases, you should be offered a change of bedding if the dogs have inspected your bedding and you feel that this contact has made the bedding unclean.

What happens if an unauthorised item is found?

If an unauthorised item is found, this must be properly recorded in a Security Incident Report (SIR) and sent to Security.

You may then have a charge laid against you. The charge is written out in Prison Rule 51, sub-section 12.

Prison Service Instruction 05/2018 Prisoner Discipline Procedures explains the rule, it is written as:

PR51(12) / YOIR(13) has in his possession (a) any unauthorised article;

or (b) a greater quantity of any article than he is authorised to have

‘At (time) … on (date) in (place) you had in your possession an unauthorised article, (or ‘a greater quantity of (article) than you were authorised to have, namely (number/quantity of article)’. 

YOI stands for Youth Offender Instructions.

For example, if the officers have found something they think is an illegal drug, they might write: “you had in your possession an unauthorised article, namely a white powder”.

If the officers find liquid that they suspect is hooch, they may write: “you had in your possession an unauthorised article, namely a fermenting liquid”. They must record the nature of the liquid, for example, the fact that the liquid was frothy or had a smell like vinegar. Any fermenting liquid or liquid with a strange odour can lead to a cell search.

If the officers have found several items that they think may be unauthorised, they may lay a separate charge for each unauthorised item. Note that an item does not have to be in your possession for a charge to be laid, it can be in an area of the prison to which you have access.

The item or items must be dealt with according to the guidelines in PSI 08/2016 Dealing with Evidence. These provide rules about maintaining the chain of custody and preventing contamination of samples.

The charge will be quashed or dismissed if a review shows that you are allowed to have the item.

Further information

Useful PSIs and PSOs (these should be available in the library):

PSI 05/2018 Prisoner Discipline Procedures

PSI 08/2016 National Security Framework Ref. NSF 3.3 Dealing with Evidence

PSI 07/2016 Searching of the Person.

PSI 09/2016 Cell, Area and Vehicle Searching

For a print-ready version of this information, click here.