Searching of the person

While you are in prison you will sometimes be searched by staff.

There a number of reasons why a person might be searched.

Common times to be searched are:

  • on initial reception to prison
  • after transfer from another prison
  • when returning to prison after ROTL or escort
  • follow a visit
  • during a cell-search

There are different types of search that may be justified by different circumstances.

The type of search you might get depends on things like:

  • whether you are in the high security estate
  • whether you are in a prison for men, women or young people.

Rule 41 of Prison Rules 1999 says:

(1) Every prisoner shall be searched when taken into custody by an officer, on his reception into a prison and subsequently as the governor thinks necessary or as the Secretary of State may direct.

(2) A prisoner shall be searched in as seemly a manner as is consistent with discovering anything concealed.

(3) No prisoner shall be stripped and searched in the sight of another prisoner, or in the sight of a person of the opposite sex.

There is more detail about what circumstances each search should or can be used for in PSI 07/2016 Searching of the Person.

What are the different types of search?

There are two main types of search – rub down searches and full searches.

Rub down searches

Rub down searches can be carried out by a single officer and must be done using open hands with fingers spread out.

During a rub down search you will be asked:

  • if you have anything you are not allowed to have
  • to empty pockets and remove jewellery including any wristwatch
  • to stand facing the officer with your arms out
  •  to remove headwear (if you are wearing headwear for religious or cultural reasons there are more rules – see page 3 for more information)

The officer will check:

  • Your front from neck to waist.
  • Your back from collar to waist
  • The back of your waistband
  • The seat of your trouser or skirt

When searching women staff should search from shoulders to top of the bra and then from underneath their breasts to the waistband.

Rub down searches are not intrusive searches and should not normally have to raise or remove outer clothing.

However, if the prison staff think that something may be hidden you may be asked to raise or remove outer clothing. This must always be done in private and out of sight of persons of the opposite sex.

A mat should be provided for you to stand on whilst footwear is being searched.

There are two levels of rub down search – level A and level B.

Level B rub down searches are basic rub down searches as described above.

Level A rub down searches include extra checks such as asking you to remove shoes, checking in your hair and looking inside your ears nose and mouth.

Annex B of PSI 07/2016 Searching of the Person includes more information about how a rub down search should be done

Full searches

Full searches are more in-depth searches which require you to remove your clothing.

A full search must be

  • carried out by two officers of the same sex as the person being searched
  • out of sight of anyone else including other staff and prisoners.

You should never be completely naked during a full search - staff should let you replace clothing on the top half of your body before removing items on the lower half.

Hand-held metal detectors may be used during a full search for men and must be used as part of a full search for women.

Full searches of women differ from that of male prisoners and consist of Level 1 and Level 2 searches.

Level 1 searches involve the removal of clothing except for underwear. 

Level 2 searches involve removal of all clothing including underwear. Level 2 searches should only take place if there is intelligence or suspicion that an item has been hidden.

Annex B of PSI 07/2016 Searching of the Person includes more information about how a full search should be done

Intimate searches

Prison officers are not allowed to conduct intimate searches.

An intimate search is defined as intrusion into a bodily orifice. For example, using hands to search your mouth or other private areas of your body.

Searching staff may look into your mouth during a rub down or full search.

Searching male prisoners

If there are grounds to suspect that a male prisoner has an item hidden in an intimate area then a closer visual inspection can be undertaken as part of a full search.

Male prisoners may be asked to squat during a full search. A record must be kept of when this request is made.

Searching women

Women must not be asked to squat under any circumstances.

Women should not be subject to visual inspections of intimate areas.

There are a number of annexes within the PSI which cover considerations for specific groups of people.

Searching arrangements for religious or cultural reasons

Annex D gives guidance on searching arrangements for religious or cultural reasons.

Searching by female staff

Male prisoners who do not want to be searched by a female member of staff for religious or cultural reasons can request that this is carried out by male staff only.

Searching of Sikh Kachera

If you are Sikh and wear Kachera (or Kaccha) you should be offered another pair to change into during a full search.

Searching of religious or cultural headwear

Headwear for religious or cultural reasons, such as Sikh turbans, Jewish yarmulkes, Muslim caps or headscarves and Rastafarian headwear is subject to searching. Searching of headwear should be done with respect.

During a full search or Level A Rub down religious headwear is required to be removed and searched.

During a Level B rub down search you will only be asked to remove religious headwear for search if there is a positive reading from the hand-held metal detector or if staff think you have hidden something there.

If you are asked to remove religious headwear during a search this should be done in private and by staff of the same sex as you. Staff should allow you to remove it and not attempt to remove it themselves.

Searching of Muslim people by dogs

If you are Muslim and you are searched by dogs when attending Friday prayers, facilities must be made available to allow you to wash and change clothes quickly so that prayers are not missed.

Searching arrangements for people with disabilities

Annex E says that search procedures will need to be changed according to injuries or disabilities a person has.

You should be asked if you are in any pain before the search.

If staff are unsure how to conduct the search because of an injury or disability they should get advice from healthcare.

If you have difficulty standing for long period due to old age or disability, you should be allowed to sit down as much as possible during the search.

If you are a wheelchair user, you may be asked to transfer to another chair during a search. Specialist assistance and aids should be provided for this if needed. Your wheelchair will be collapsed and closely inspected.

If you have an artificial limb, bandage, plaster cast or any other medical item which makes the search more difficult, or if the prison think you are using it to hide something, they can get advice from healthcare staff about whether the item can be removed. If you are asked to remove the item this should be out of sights of others.

Searching arrangements for transgender people in prison

Annex H includes searching arrangements for transgender people in prison.

It states that a voluntary agreement should be put in place as to how this should be done.

If you have applied for or have obtained legal recognition of the gender with which you identify you must be searched in accordance with this unless alternative arrangements are agreed.

Searches must not be conducted to determine gender.

Technical aids for searching

Prison staff may use special equipment to help them with searches. For example:

  • X-ray machines
  • Metal detecting portals
  • Hand held metal detectors
  • BOSS chair – this is a non-intrusive scanning system within a chair, detect any metal objects hidden about your person

Further information

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

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.