TALLINN – The Supreme Court of Estonia found in a ruling issued on Tuesday that Tallinn Prison had acted unlawfully in forcibly conducting a vaginal search of a female prisoner.
The top court noted in the ruling that as the prison had no legal basis to search the complainant's body cavities, such a search was unlawful.
On Dec. 3, 2018, Tallinn Prison moved the women's unit to a new prison building and used the help of an armed unit of the Ministry of Justice to transfer prisoners and prison equipment to the new buildings.
Based on a threat assessment prepared by the prison's information and investigation department, the prison inspected the body cavities of all female prisoners, but one prisoner who refused inspection was subjected to a gynecological examination conducted by a health professional against her will. Nothing was found during this inspection.
During the journey to the examination and the examination itself, prison officials and members of the armed unit applied restraining measures to the female prisoner, meaning handcuffs were used when moving her, while handcuffs and a restraint bed were used during the examination.
The inmate filed a claim for damages against Tallinn Prison in the amount of 5,000 euros, of which the court awarded 1,600 euros in her favor.
According to the inmate, she refused the inspection because she had not hidden anything in her body cavities and found that the involuntary gynecological examination, which used handcuffs and a restraint bed, was torturing and inhumane.
The female prisoner said that she had been intimidated and insulted by members of the armed unit, that she had not been shown the legal basis for the search and that a member of the armed unit had threatened to use a firearm against her. Nor, according to the prisoner, was it explained to her that the examination would be carried out by a female medical professional and that she was left with the impression that it would be carried out with the participation of prison officers and members of the armed unit.
According to the prisoner, the events were filmed and no female employees were present during several procedures. "The way the members of the armed unit communicated was inadequate, aggressive, overbearing and arrogant, the filming was provocative, arrogant and demonstrative. All the activities had an undertone of sexual harassment or discrimination," the female prisoner claimed.
The prison and the Ministry of Justice were of the opinion that everything took place in accordance with the provisions of the Imprisonment Act.
The prison noted that the woman's refusal to be examined and her suspicious behavior gave reason to believe that she was hiding some forbidden object in her body cavities. Even in the case of a person staying alone in a cell, possession of prohibited articles is not completely ruled out, the prison said.
According to the prison, the prisoner was examined in a room where privacy was guaranteed and only female officials were present. "The body cavities were inspected by medical personnel with disposable equipment. The process was hygienic and professional. If a detainee unreasonably refuses a search, it is a violation of the Imprisonment Act," the prison said.
The Supreme Court noted in its ruling that the Imprisonment Act cannot be interpreted in such a way that the term "search of a prisoner" also includes the legal basis for the search of body cavities. The Supreme Court finds that in order to search a person's body cavities, the regulation should be more precise and detailed.
The fact that a prison has a duty to ensure security under the Imprisonment Act, including protecting a detainee from another detainee, does not invalidate the view of the Chamber that an explicit legal basis is required for the search of body cavities.
"It can be taken into account that today, the public authorities have a number of technical means at their disposal that allow the detection of illicit substances without compromising the physical inviolability of the detainee. It is also possible for the legislator to lay down such a rule if, in certain cases, it may be necessary to inspect body cavities. Thus, the prison and the courts have proceeded from a misinterpretation of the Imprisonment Act. This provision does not allow for the search of body cavities. As the prison had no legal basis for searching the complainant's body cavities, such a search was unlawful," the Supreme Court said.