University of Minnesota

World Medical Association, Statement on Body Searches of Prisoners (1993).


Adopted by the 45th World Medical Assembly
Budapest, Hungary, October 1993


The prison systems in many countries mandate body cavity searches of prisoners. Such searches, which include rectal and pelvic examination, may be performed when an individual enters the prison population and thereafter whenever the individual is permitted to have personal contact with someone outside the prison population, or when there is a reason to believe a breach of security or of prison regulations has occurred. For example, when a prisoner is taken to Court for a hearing, or to the hospital for treatment, or to work outside the prison, the prisoner, upon returning to the institution, may be subjected to a body cavity search which will include all body orifices. The purpose of the search is primarily security and/or to prevent contraband, such as weapons or drugs, from entering the prison.

These searches are performed for security reasons and not for medical reasons. Nevertheless, they should not be done by anyone other than a competent person with some medical training. This non-medical act may be performed by a physician to protect the prisoner from the harm that might result from a search by a non-medically trained examiner. The physician should explain this to the prisoner and should furthermore explain to the prisoner that the usual conditions of medical confidentiality do not apply during this imposed procedure and that the results of the search will be revealed to the authorities. If a physician is duly mandated by an authority and agrees to perform a body cavity search on a prisoner,the authority should be duly informed of the necessity for this procedure to be done in a humane manner.

The search should be conducted by a physician other than the physician who will provide medical care to the prisoner.

The physician's obligation to provide medical care to the prisoner should not be compromised by an obligation to participate in the prison's security system.

The World Medical Association urges all governments and public officials with responsibility for public safety to recognize that such invasive search procedures are a serious assault on a person's privacy and dignity, and also carry some risk of physical and psychological injury. Therefore, the World Medical Association exhorts that, to the extent feasible without compromising public security,
- alternate methods be used for routine screening of prisoners, and body cavity searches be resorted to only as a last resort;
- If a body cavity search must be conducted, the responsible public official ensure that the search is conducted by personnel with sufficient medical knowledge and skills to perform the search safely;
- the same responsible authority ensure that due regard for the individual's privacy and dignity be guaranteed.
Finally, the World Medical Association urges all governments and responsible public officials to provide for such searches by a physician whenever warranted by the individual's physical condition. A specific request by a prisoner for a physician shall be respected, so far as possible.

The World Medical Association adopts this statement for the purpose of providing guidance for National Medical Associations as they develop ethical guidelines for their physician members.

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