Not-so-searching journalism

(Hat tip to Press Not Sorry and Trans Media Watch)

Not wanting to be left out by recent events in the papers, The Sun has a leak of its own (and by a leak, I mean a document that’s been freely available online since mid-October): prison search guidelines. The rules cover everything from whether or not to search religious clothing, to the proper use of metal detectors, to when it’s appropriate to search a baby’s nappy; there’re any number of angles The Sun could have taken with its coverage. What does it go for?

STRIP SEARCH AXED FOR SEX SWAP LAGS*

The underlying message of The Sun‘s article (and its hastily churned-out sibling in the Daily Mail) is clear: transgender people are supposedly getting special treatment and smuggling weapons/drugs into prison.

The Sun says:

PRISON bosses have been told not to order intimate strip searches on sex swap lags, it was revealed last night.

The new rule has been drawn up by officials working for Justice Secretary Ken Clarke – who has already been slammed for going soft on sentences.

And the “squat” search ban does not only apply to prisoners who’ve had a sex change. Officials have ruled that gender swappers are now exempt even if they haven’t yet had any surgery. Angry prison officers say the naked searches are the only way jails can detect drugs or weapons that prisoners have hidden inside their bodies.

(The Mail’s article is essentially identical – imagine the above put through a de-slanging translator)

Note that they don’t quote any of these “angry prison officers” and that “intimate strip searches” quickly gets replaced by one specific type of search.

The Sun never actually quotes from the “leaked” document, so you just have to take their word that that’s what the guidelines say. Or you would, if prison search guidelines weren’t already freely available online (.doc). The actual advice they give is a little more prosaic:

Where it is suspected that an item has been hidden in or around the anus, a male prisoner must be asked to bend/squat as part of a full search, to enable the officer to visually examine the area more closely.  Female prisoners must not be asked to squat.  The basic principle here is that anyone who is legally a female (from birth or acquired via a GRC) must not be asked to bend or squat neither should anyone who has a vagina (regardless of legal gender).

In fact, search rules for trans people work more or less exactly the same to how they work for cis people. Admittedly, there is an exception – presumably for medical reasons – of trans men who haven’t had GC surgery, but this is an exception for anyone with a vagina, trans or cis; it would be impossible to abuse this to smuggle anything into a prison.

The other rule that The Sun finds “bizarre”?

Male lags who want a sex change can demand to be given a nude search by a woman – while women awaiting a sex swap can demand a male officer. Governors must draw up a “voluntary contract” with all transsexuals before they can carry out a “rub down” or full body search.

And the rules add: “Procedures must be sensitive both to the needs of prisoners and staff and they must remain lawful in order to avoid potential litigation.”

Searches must be lawful? Outrageous!

Anyway, ignoring The Sun‘s mix-up of male and female here, once again all the guidelines actually do is clarify that someone who is legally a woman should be treated like, well, a woman. Since for reasons that should be reasonably obvious, male officers can’t strip search female prisoners, all women must be searched by female officers. It’s not something they “can demand” but a statutory requirement (which means the guidelines go into detail about what effect gender recognition certificates have).

More importantly though, what the guidelines make clear is that it’s important that the prison guards and the prisoner agree if possible, and that the search is carried out with reasonable sensitivity – exactly the same as how a cisgender prisoner should be treated. In other words, trans prisoners receive (at least in theory) the same treatment as everyone else. The Sun and The Mail apparently have a big problem with this.

* “Sex swap”, incidentally, is one of Trans Media Watch’s inappropriate or offensive words to avoid.

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  1. #1 by JJ on Tuesday, 14th December 2010 - 2:03 UTC

    Thanks for going into this. The language of The Mail and The Sun is a constant source of pain and humiliation for trans people. The ‘mere’ fact that these articles are tenuously spun out of a fairly mundane regulation which essentially says that prisoners should be treated according to the law is almost the least of our problems. These journalists have no interest in nuances like this if, in the righteous indignation they conjure in the entirely consequence-free world of tabloid journalism, they can sell papers and again humiliate an oft humiliated group.

    TMW is fighting to try and make this vile bigotry, and the literally HUNDREDS of pieces like it that appear in the British media each year, a thing of the past. Much of work these days is focused on working with broadcasters, journalists and lawyers who WILL listen…but there is always a role for holding this kind of writing up to the derision it deserves.

  2. #2 by Liz Church on Tuesday, 14th December 2010 - 8:46 UTC

    Thanks for publishing this.

    Also, your link to the MoJ document isn’t working; it’s looking for it on your own site. Try this: http://psi.hmprisonservice.gov.uk/psi_2010_48_searching_of_the_person.doc

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