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"It's worth a 'spin'", by Erwin James, The Guardian

7th August 2007

Cell searches in prison are a nuisance for the prisoner. You might be reading, writing a letter or just having a snooze to pass a couple of particularly slow hours when, without warning, the cell door is unlocked and in walk a couple of "burglars" - prison officers specially trained in going through cupboards, poking under beds and raking over personal effects.

On other occasions, with no notice given, prisoners are detained at the workplace or educational placements. "Spin," announce the specialist officers, usually with a disarming smile and sometimes a jovial nod and a wink.

In the cell, the occupant is first subjected to a "strip" - a strip search whereby the prisoner is instructed to remove one item of clothing at a time for the officers to scrutinise before handing it back. When naked from the waist down search subjects are sometimes told to squat so that weapons or contraband that might have been "cheeked" - secreted between the buttocks - can be retrieved. Once the strip has been completed, the prisoner is ordered to wait outside the cell while the officers undertake the rest of their furtive business.

Understandably, nobody in jail likes being spun, having privacy invaded, dignity slighted, routine disrupted. Those up to no good like it even less. The bookies, the barons, the drug users and especially the dealers - all are kept on their toes by the random, unannounced searching of bodies and cells. And rightly so.

News that the prison service might be considering abandoning random daily cell checks and searches to save money should cause grave concern to anyone who still yearns for a prison system to work effectively and in society's best interests.

A leaked letter from Michael Spurr, the deputy director general of the prison service, to governors and prison staff, explains that a review has been commissioned "to consider cost savings" and one of the recommendations is that "cell fabric tests" should be scrapped. Apparently, and mind-bogglingly considering the extent of overcrowding and dearth of resources, the prison service has been ordered to make £60m worth of annual cuts by next year.

Another recommendation is that the number of random mandatory drug tests (MDTs) should be reduced. Many people working in the system will probably agree that this might not be a bad idea, since it is broadly accepted that MDTs, introduced in the 1990s, have directly led to the increase of heroin use in prison and subsequently the massive drug crisis currently blighting every aspect of prison life.

Before MDTs, many prisoners used cannabis to relieve the stresses and strains of life on the landings. But since cannabis stays in the body's system for up to 30 days, significant numbers turned to heroin following the introduction of drug testing because evidence of the harder drug leaves the body after just a couple of days.

Fewer drug tests could well lead to a cut in hard drug use. But everybody connected with frontline prison life knows that the regular searching of prisoners and cells is the most efficient way for staff to keep a grip on a prison.

Cell searching may be an inconvenient and uncomfortable experience for individual prisoners, but as an integral institutional safety mechanism it is invaluable. Ensuring the safety of prisoners and staff should be one of the highest priorities of any self-respecting prison governor and the suggestion that cell searching should be limited or indeed abandoned, will, I am sure be rejected out of hand by those responsible for running our prisons. Any other response would be madness.

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