Blog: Search Me?

Willie McIntyre

We all know that there is a presumption against the imposition of prison sentences, but these days it’s difficult for solicitors, never mind their clients, to access the jail.

I remember when a solicitor could be trusted not to be a criminal; however, little by little, more and more intrusive security requirements have been introduced for prison visits. It’s like the boiling a frog analogy. First there were no checks. Then it was just a quick wave of a handheld metal-detector. Then we had to flash a Law Society ID card – that was a fiver a year you never saw again. Then came the walk-through metal-detectors and airport style baggage scanners. Now, for me, the temperature of the water has become too warm to be comfortable.

On my last visit to a client in prison, I knew from experience to leave my mobile phone in the car and only take the paper files because my briefcase would set off a DEFCON 2 situation the moment it went through the scanner. Inside the prison reception I was asked to remove my jacket and everything from my pockets, take off my shoes and my belt, my cufflinks and also my watch. Oh, and my watch couldn’t come to the visit with me. Why not? Well, apparently, it might be a special watch, and while it was nice to be mistaken for James Bond, seriously, what could I possibly do with my ancient wind-up? Whip out a length of piano wire and garrotte my client? Or maybe use it to catch the sun and signal a daring helicopter escape?

So, anyway, there I was standing in the foyer, with no idea of the time, holding my trousers up, cuffs flapping as I tried to untie my shoelaces, all the time wondering what kind of state my socks were in, when I was approached from the rear by a couple of cops dressed in black combat gear, like they were about to abseil down the front of the Whitehouse and save the President.

‘Do you have a problem with dogs, sir?’ Was a question I wasn’t expecting, bent over and only partially-clothed; however, I composed myself and replied that I’d never had any problem with dogs, providing they were quick out of the trap and I hadn’t bet too much money on them.

‘Do you have any objection to being sniffed?’ Is a question that before answering I think it only pertinent to establish just who exactly will be doing the sniffing and whether I’ll be bought dinner.

As it turned out, a big, black labrador would be delegated the sniffing and, just in case I had hopes of clinging to any remaining shred of self-respect, after that there would follow a search of my oral cavity. None of this, of course, would take place in private, but in full view of everybody and anybody who happened to be hanging around the prison reception area. I never discovered whether the examination of my fillings was to be undertaken by man or dog because that’s when I brought the whole humiliating process to a halt, wondering if the untimely death of Jeremy Beedle had in fact all been a prank.

Thereafter I was visited by a series of prison officials of increasing rank and better suits, each making it very clear that I would not be allowed to visit my client unless Rover was permitted to sniff my gentleman parts and some, as yet undesigned, individual had a look inside my mouth for nail files and rope ladders. It was at this juncture I granted myself early release and returned, dignity almost intact, to the office.

How did we get here as a profession? Why is it we are held in such low esteem that we are expected to undergo this kind of degrading treatment? What is the Law Society’s view on this treatment of its members? Is it all part of a push for client/solicitor prison visits to be done via Internet?

I fully appreciate that that those visiting prisons in a private capacity should undergo security checks, but, yes, I do want preferential treatment. I’m there on business. I’m a professional. I was deemed to be a fit and proper person by the Lord President thirty years ago and haven’t proved him wrong so far.

I have a Law Society ID card that gives me access to every court and police station in the UK and Europe, but when I go to prison I’m supposed to stand there with my arse hanging out my trousers, while some mutt sniffs me all over and my molars are checked like I’m some old nag at the Appleby Fair.

I don’t think so. This frog is jumping out of the pot before the water starts to boil or, to be less analogical, before I hear the snap of a rubber glove and the lid unscrewing on a tub of Vaseline.

  • Willie McIntyre is a partner at Russel+Aitken.
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