In the 36 months she was behind bars, Bianca Mercer estimates she was strip searched around 1,300 times.
Every time she received her methadone treatment, she was strip searched. Pregnant during her second incarceration at Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, she was strip searched each time she went to the hospital. She was strip searched when she saw family. She was strip searched so often, she started keeping track in a notebook.
“They would just choose random people to strip search,” she told SaltWire. “Sometimes I was getting strip searched four times a day.”
The process was similar each time, Mercer said. There are two guards, usually both female but not always. You remove all your clothes and any other personal items and hand them to the supervising guard. With the other guard watching closely, you run your fingers through your hair and shake it out, you demonstrate that there’s nothing in your ears, in your mouth, or under your tongue. You hold your arms out. You lift your breasts up. You lift your stomach up. You lift your feet up and wiggle your toes.
Then you bend over and pull apart your buttocks. You squat to the floor, and you cough.
“They’re literally letting guards sexually assault women that have already been sexually assaulted.”
- Bianca Mercer, law student and former Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility inmate
The strip searchers are supposed to be done in private, but Mercer said that wasn’t always the case. Once, when she was seven months pregnant, she was strip searched in a janitor's closet with the door open while other inmates walked by.
“There’s guards in there that would go to inmates that were they were close to ... and would tell them what other women looked like when they were naked. Saying rude things about their body parts, hair, scars, stretch marks and how ugly they were,” Mercer said. “That's the type of pettiness and abuse that was going on.”
Mercer was incarcerated twice and last served time in 2017. Most of the time she spent inside was while on remand awaiting trial for trafficking, robbery and fraud and unable to afford bail. In the end, all but one of her charges were dropped and she was only sentenced to four months, for which she received time served.
Today she is attending Dalhousie and working towards a law degree. She is also heavily involved in prison reform activism and advocacy on behalf of incarcerated women.
Mercer said the excessive use of strip searches in correctional institutions is especially traumatic for the disproportionate number of incarcerated women who have a history of prior physical or sexual abuse.
“They’re literally letting guards sexually assault women that have already been sexually assaulted,” she said.
Mercer said some women she was incarcerated with were so viscerally opposed to being strip searched they would skip visits with their family to avoid it, or refuse them outright knowing it would mean being placed in segregation instead.
“It’s not used to protect (us), it’s used to humiliate us and break us down. So that we know who's in charge.”
On Friday the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies held a National Day of Action to call for the end of strip searches in Canadian correctional facilities.
Using the tagline #HearMeToo, Kassandra Churcher, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies said the organization is attempting to raise awareness about the impact of strip searches on incarcerated women as well as dispel public myths.
Churcher said people often liken searches in prisons to an airport pat-down, but the two are incomparable.
“Last month it was documented in one of our regional advocate letters was (that) a woman had to urinate in front of a guard who was kneeling down to see her vulva, (there are) women having to take out their tampons,” Churcher said. “Those intimate details of what it means to take off your clothes lift your breasts spread your legs, I don't think people really understand.”
Aside from causing trauma for inmates, Churcher said studies have shown these invasive searches do little to improve safety. She cited a recent Australian study that found that for every 18,000 strip searches, guards found only one piece of contraband.
“There's not a lot of critical analysis or discussion about the impact of having to perform this act on women with deep and long histories of trauma and abuse, and the fact that there are guards themselves who try to avoid having to do this task should be indicative that it's harming not only the women that we're advocating for but potentially also Correctional Service of Canada staff,” she said.
Though strip searches happen in every prison across Canada, Churcher said this campaign is specifically calling on public safety minister Ralph Goodale to end the practice in federal institutions.
“This one practice that is totally unnecessary for public safety is creating so many barriers ... to rehabilitation,” Churcher said.
“If we have the leadership coming from our federal government, that sets the standard for what practices are going to be endorsed in our country.”
In an emailed statement, Goodale’s office said the department recognizes that many people in federal custody have histories of trauma and that a safe environment is essential to rehabilitation.
“At the same time, ensuring their safety requires security measures to prevent the entry of contraband into correctional facilities. Every year there over 5,000 incidents of contraband at federal correctional facilities,” the statement reads.
The department said federal policy mandates that all strip searches must be conducted in private, and prohibits male staff members from conducting or witnessing the strip search of a woman inmate under any circumstances. Goodale’s office also said the federal government is in the process of passing legislation that would authorize correctional staff to use body scans as an alternative to reduce the use of strip searches.