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A body cavity search is either a visual search or a manual internal inspection of body cavities such as for prohibited material (contraband), such as illegal drugs, money, or weapons. It is far more invasive than the standard strip search that is typically performed on individuals taken into custody, either upon police arrest or incarceration at a jail, prison, or psychiatric hospital. Often the procedure is repeated when the person leaves the institution. Body cavity searches may also be conducted by the United States Customs and Border Patrol when they suspect international travelers of hiding contraband - such as drugs - in their alimentary canal. [1]

Visual vs. manual

Suspects and inmates can be highly creative in using their bodies to conceal contraband. For example, objects may be concealed by inserting them into the rectum. Illegal drugs can be placed in condoms and temporarily stored in the colon. Cylinders such as cigar tubes are used to hide money, intravenous syringes, and knives. Duplicate handcuff keys can be concealed in most body orifices. These goods are considered valuable inside a prison and can pose a security risk to staff and inmates at such facilities.

Further, not all contraband flows into the prison. In a thorough visual body cavity search, a flashlight is used to illuminate body orifices, including nostrils, ears, mouth, penis (urethra and foreskin) or vagina, and rectum. Generally, the detainee is required to manipulate these body parts so that they can be examined.

During manual body cavity searches, body orifices are probed using fingers or instruments. Because of the risk of injury, most western authorities specify that these searches can only be done by medical professionals. Further, the circumstance in which these inspections may be done is often restricted. For example, they are done on individuals refusing to offer to consent to a visual body cavity search or in situations where there is strong evidence to suspect the presence of contraband.

Legal standing

Inmates and human rights activists argue that body cavity searches are done not so much to stop the flow of contraband but rather to harass and humiliate detainees. A visual inspection of the rectum will not reveal objects concealed deeply inside. Likewise, it is possible to circumvent detection during manual body cavity searches. In some instances, suspects swallow packages of drugs protected by condoms and allow them to pass through their digestive tract. Only diagnostic imaging will reveal the concealed contraband.

Because these searches are highly invasive and greatly compromise an individual’s right of privacy, the legality of visual and manual body cavity searches is frequently contested.

In the United States, Bell v. Wolfish is the benchmark case on this issue. In its judgment of the case, the U.S. Supreme Court established a standard of reasonable grounds for performing cavity searches. Among these are security concerns at prisons.

See also


  1. See United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531, 538 (1985)

Additional Resources

  • Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 559 (1979) [1]
  • Gochnauer, Myron (1985). "Necessity and Prisoners' Rights.". New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement 10, 27-43.
  • Kalinich, David B. & Stan Stojkovic. (1985). "Contraband: The Basis for Legitimate Power in a Prison Social System". Criminal Justice and Behavior 12, 435-451.
  • Lerner, Jimmy (2002). You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish. New York: Broadway Books.
  • Schwartz, Barry (1972). Deprivation of privacy as a 'functional prerequisite': The case of the prison". The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science 63 (2), 229-239.

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