Suffolk prisoner wins legal review over searches

A murderer has won the first stage of his human rights challenge to rub-down searches by female prison officers - which he says make him 'embarrassed and uncomfortable'.

James Dowsett was jailed for life in 1989 after he was convicted of the murder of Christopher Nugent, whose body was found with two shotgun wounds to the head in Mildenhall, Suffolk, in 1987.

Now in his mid-60s and still behind bars, Dowsett is mounting a publicly-funded claim against the Ministry of Justice - arguing their policy of allowing only female and religious minority prisoners to choose who they are 'rubbed-down' by is discriminatory and violates his human rights.

Despite saying she had 'significant reservations' about his claims, Mrs Justice Thirlwall granted Dowsett permission to mount a full judicial review of the Ministry's nationwide policy on searching prisoners.

Dowsett was found guilty of the murder of his business partner by a jury at Norwich Crown Court in 1989. The prosecution case was that he paid two men more than �7,500 to carry out the killing.

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Having now served his 21-year minimum term, but failing to win parole, Dowsett is being held at HMP Highpoint, in Stradishall, Suffolk, where he suffers from ill health and recently underwent an operation on his pancreas, London's High Court was told.

Dowsett's lawyers argue the rub down searches prisoners are subjected to in jail amount to more than a 'cursory skimming' of a convict's clothes.

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His barrister, Adam Straw, told the court: 'The rub-down searches involve staff touching the prisoner's intimate areas, including around his crotch, and often touching bare skin beneath the trouser waistline.

'They make the claimant embarrassed and uncomfortable. They have been repeated about 1,500 times over an extended period and he has particular health concerns which make such searches even more uncomfortable.'

Current prison policy means women inmates must only be searched by female warders, while male prisoners with 'religious objections' can opt out of rub-downs by women. Other men, his lawyers say, do not have a choice.

Dowsett says his objections to being searched by female prison officers have been met by 'laughs and jeers' from his fellow lags.

Jonathan Swift QC, for the Ministry of Justice, told the court: 'He says that every time he has been searched by a female prison officer in the previous 18 years he has had feelings of discomfort, embarrassment etc.

'But there is a serious question to the credibility of that evidence, given the fact that it has taken 18 years for him to raise it.'

Mrs Justice Thirlwall today ruled Dowsett's claims of sexual and religious discrimination and breaches of his human rights to privacy and equality should be given a full hearing by a High Court judge.

She said: 'It seems to me that there is significant merit in the [Ministry of Justice's] argument, but I accept at this stage that what the claimant submits is arguable.'

If Dowsett wins his case, he could force a change in Ministry of Justice policy to allow male inmates to choose who they are searched by.

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