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Report slams strip-search drill

STRIP-searching of women in Queensland jails has been slammed as "unreasonable and unacceptable" in a ground-breaking report.

The Anti-Discrimination Commission of Queensland has urged legislative changes to back its 68 recommendations for improving the running of women's prisons.

These include measures to minimise strip searches and a ban on male guards observing women prisoners held in detention or in jail crisis units.

Male prison officers should not be allowed to inspect women's cells at night, the ADCQ said.

Non-custodial sentencing options such as home detention should be available to women with dependent children, according to the 155-page report, to be released on Wednesday after a 20-month investigation into concerns raised by prisoner advocacy group Sisters Inside.

The Beattie Government also faces embarrassment over a finding that the official prisons' watchdog lacks independence.

The report said that the newly-established office of Chief Inspector of Prisons was "not sufficiently at arm's length" from State Corrective Services, partly because it reports only to the department's director-general.

The ADCQ calls for the Chief Inspector to report direct to Parliament, as is the case in Western Australia, and warns that its existing staff of six was insufficient to handle the workload.

But Corrective Services Minister Judy Spence last night defended the independence of the office and said resourcing would increase over time.

"There is not one single finding in this report that women in Queensland jails are being discriminated against because of their gender," she said.

"Nor has the Anti-Discrimination Commission given any examples of better practice in any other Australian or overseas jurisdiction."

The report finds that women who are classified as low-security prisoners, but held in higher-security custody, are undergoing "an unreasonable and unacceptable number" of routine strip searches.

It also expresses concern that the repeated strip searching of women prisoners in jail crisis support units may be "direct discrimination" on the basis that many of them are suffering from mental illness.

Corrective Services should investigate whether body-scanning machines used in European prisons could provide an alternative to routine strip searching, the report said.

Other options included having prisoners wear full body suits or overalls during contact visits, "pat-down" searches combined with targeted strip-searching and random strip searches.

On the sensitive issue of male prison officers observing women in their cells, the ADCQ finds it is "inappropriate" for them to be assigned this responsibility at night. Female officers should instead carry out all cell inspections on the night shift.

The ADCQ agrees with concern about male prison officers monitoring the round-the-clock camera surveillance of women in observation cells, and says no men should be working within the crisis support units of women's jails.

Ms Spence confirmed in State Parliament last year that male prison officers were employed in the crisis support unit at Brisbane Women's Correctional Centre, the state's principal jail for women, and that they were "at times" assigned to monitoring camera surveillance of the cells.

The Courier-Mail understands that women inmates are held naked in the unit's one padded cell, and use the toilet and shower within camera shot in the remaining observation cells.

Ms Spence told Parliament that the staff ratio at Brisbane Women's prison was 70 per cent female to 30 per cent male.

Sisters Inside director Debbie Kilroy declined to comment on the report ahead of its release.

It finds that the existing security classification system for prisoners has the potential to discriminate against women inmates generally, and particularly those who are indigenous or who have a mental illness.

The best interest of children was not reflected in sentencing outcomes for mothers, nor in the treatment of women and their children in prison, the report says.

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