Jail chiefs' U-turn over visitor searches

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The Independent Online
Probation officers last night claimed the Prison Service had made a dramatic U-turn in the row over jail searching.

Jail chiefs have drafted new rules forbidding staff from running their fingers through the hair or searching the mouths of professional prison visitors. Officers are specifically warned not to touch the breasts of females.

The guidelines, drawn up by a senior prison official, Phillip Wheatley, and seen by The Independent, follow a row in which the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) threatened to seek judicial review of the legality of what it called "intrusive" searching.

The Prison Service, anxious to meet targets set down in official security reviews following the Whitemoor and Parkhurst prison breaks, has maintained that the searching is necessary to prevent drugs or weapons being smuggled into jails.

Napo believes that the policy has gone too far, leading to overzealous searches of probation officers, social workers, lawyers and other professionals who need to visit clients in jail.

Last night it emerged that two women drugs workers were planning legal action after they were accused of being heroin smugglers and subjected to a full strip search at Liverpool prison. Sue Edwards, 35, and Carry Burton, 37, had gone to the jail to see an inmate who was facing drugs charges and was being considered for rehabilitation.

They have claimed that jail staff refused to accept Ms Edwards' ID and said she was called Sue Rider, or "Heroin Sue", and was carrying drugs.

The women said the prison refused to contact their office to confirm their identities and called the police. They then asked the women to strip in a corridor behind some towels.

When the drugs workers refused they were told to go into a toilet accompanied by a female prison officer and a woman police officer. They were strip- searched and no drugs were found. Both women were badly shocked by the episode, for which they received no apology, and are bringing legal action through their union, Unison.

A copy of the new draft, "Core Entry Search Procedures", was circulated to chief probation officers last week. It will be submitted to ministers for approval. Ann Widdecombe, prisons minister, denied last night that the rules represented any kind of climbdown.

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