June 13, 2016

Reasonable grounds

Mark Hanna submitted an OIA request about strip searches in NZ prisons, which carried out with ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ the prisoner has an unauthorised item.  You can see the full response at FYI. He commented that 99.3% of these searches find nothing.

Here’s the monthly data over time:

The positive predictive value of having ‘reasonable grounds’  is increasing, and is up to about 1.5% now. That’s still pretty low. How ‘reasonable’ it is depends on what proportion of the time people who aren’t searched have unauthorised items: if that were, say, 1 in 1000, having ‘reasonable grounds’ would be increasing it 5-15-fold, which might conceivably count as reasonable.

We can look at the number of searches conducted, to see if that tells us anything about trends
Again, there’s a little good news: the number of strip searches has fallen over the the past couple of years. That’s a real rise and fall — the prison population has been much more stable. The trend looks very much like the first trend upside down.

Here’s the trend for number (not proportion) of searches finding something
It’s pretty much constant over time.

Statistical models confirm what the pictures suggest: the number of successful searches is essentially uncorrelated with the total number of searches. This is also basically good news (for the future, if not the past): it suggests that a further reduction in strip searches may well be possible at no extra risk.


Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »