WMA Statement on Body Searches of Prisoners

Adopted by the 45th World Medical Assembly, Budapest, Hungary, October 1993
and editorially revised by the 170th WMA Council Session, Divonne-les-Bains, France, May 2005

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 that 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 person with appropriate 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. In such a case the physician should explain this to the prisoner. The physician 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 that it is necessary for this procedure to be done in a humane manner.

If the search is conducted by a physician, it should not be done by the physician who will also subsequently 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 serious assaults on a person's privacy and dignity, and they 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 used only as a last resort;

  • if a body cavity search must be conducted, the responsible public official must ensure that the search is conducted by personnel with sufficient medical knowledge and skills to safely perform the search;

  • the same responsible authority ensure that the individual's privacy and dignity be guaranteed.

Finally, the World Medical Association urges all governments and responsible public officials to provide body searches that are performed by a qualified 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.