Prison reformers criticise new rule on body searches

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Controversial plans to make women prison officers carry out 'rub down' searches on male prisoners and to ban smoking in all young offender institutions were criticised by penal reform groups and prison staff yesterday.

The change to the jail rule that an inmate could only be searched by an officer of the same sex was said by the Home Office yesterday to be a sign of its commitment to eliminating discrimination against female staff.

But this Home Office vision of 'equality' was 'an affront to civil liberties and individual dignity', Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, said.

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said that outside jail no one would tolerate a search by a security guard or policeman of the opposite sex.

The league was also critical of another change in prison rules - announced in the same Home Office circular - which bans smoking in young offender units.

In jails, tobacco takes on a great importance - replacing money as a currency. 'I can think of no measure more designed to cause unrest more quickly than to deny 16 and 17-year-olds in prison the same rights as people on the outside,' Ms Crook said.

Smoking should be discouraged in communal areas 'but young people locked in their cells for hours on end should be accorded privacy and the right to treat it as their own space', she said.

But the Home Office said policy was to discourage smoking among juveniles. A spokesman said that punishment for being caught smoking would be left to the discretion of governors.

But governors and staff appeared reluctant to enforce the rules. 'Many of the young people coming into our care have been addicted for several years. They are often anxious and distraught at losing their liberty . . . how can we realistically then turn round as say 'Oh and by the way we are taking your fags',' one governor said.

'Rub down' searches are not as explicit as strip searches, which will still be done by officers of the same sex as the prisoner. But rub downs can be quite intimate. Prisoners are rubbed around the torso and between the legs. The Home Office was adamant that women prisoners, many of whom have been the victims of sexual abuse, would not be searched by male officers.