Letter: Intrusion at the prison gate

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The Independent Online
Sir: The allegations by members of the probation service of intrusive body-searching ("Union acts over jail searches of visitors", 28 December) are alarming. I write as a former member of the probation service, of the Probation Inspectorate, and as one who currently has extensive contact with probation officers throughout the country.

Over the years, I have never encountered any reported incidents among members of the service that the Prison Department seems so keen to prevent. In the past two or three years I have been an occasional official visitor to a maximum-security prison in a neighbouring county. These visits have been made to probation staff and not to prisoners. Nevertheless, although I have not been searched in the intimate fashion so rightly complained of by probation officers, every item in one's possession has to be removed, and on one occasion my pen was unscrewed; on another a small nail-file safely lodged in a comb case had to be left at the gate. Not even high- risk airlines such as El Al go to such lengths. At the prison in question a costly system of identity cards for visitors was introduced, only to be abandoned for technical reasons; this would not, however, have obviated the regular searching procedures.

I am fully in favour of rigorous measures to prevent escapes and the introduction of contraband items, if these are applied in a discriminating fashion and with an adequate understanding of risk- assessment. In view of current prison over-crowding the Prison Department can ill afford to alienate professionals like probation officers who can often help to defuse tensions.

Professor H PRINS

Midlands Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice

Loughborough University