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Prisoners have been subjected to unlawful searches

1.4.2009

Deputy-Ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen has observed that the way in which prisons conduct personal searches of inmates exceeds the limits allowed by the law. 

During an inspection visit to a prison several inmates expressed criticism to the Deputy-Ombudsman of the way personal searches were conducted there. In these, prisoners had to squat and lift up their genitals, pull back their foreskin and reveal their anus to warders. 

The Deputy-Ombudsman decided on his own initiate to investigate whether these measures are to be conducted as "strip searches" or only as "personal searches".

A personal search is a measure commonly possible in prisons to, for example, find contraband objects or substances or counter a threat to the safety of the prison in conjunction with an arrival into the prison or an unsupervised visit. By contrast, a strip search, which means a more substantial intervention in personal integrity, can be conducted only in order to investigate a crime.

The prison and the Criminal Sanctions Agency took the view that the search measures described by the inmates constituted a personal search, and that a strip search is involved only when objects or substances are searched for in body cavities.  The prison's actions were based on the interpretation and practice that had apparently been adopted in the prison system before the entry into force of the current Prison Act.

Deputy-Ombudsman Jääskeläinen considers the prison's actions to be contrary to the present Prison Act. In his view, the inspection measures described by the inmates are available for use only when strip searches are conducted.

The Deputy-Ombudsman takes the view that the measures involved in the searches intervene profoundly in the personal integrity that is safeguarded in the Constitution of Finland and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. They can be experienced as humiliating or degrading.

In his opinion, power to conduct such interventions must be enshrined in an Act, in which exact limits are set and which is precise. Provisions bestowing powers must not be interpreted expansively.

The Deputy-Ombudsman refers in his decision also to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

The Deputy-Ombudsman has informed all prisons of his opinion and drawn their attention also to the fact that primarily less-intrusive measures should be used to maintain prison safety.

The Deputy-Ombudsman notes that, naturally, prison safety must be ensured. He has proposed to the Ministry of Justice that, if the means of conducting personal searches provided for in the Prison Act are deemed inadequate from the perspective of prison safety, the Act should be explicated.

Additional information will be provided by Legal Adviser Pasi Pölönen, tel. +358 (0)9 432 3345.