Children pinned to floor and forced to wear spit hoods at South Australian detention centre

Ombudsman says restraint device ‘inherently traumatic’ and should be phased out

Children as young as 13 were pinned on the floor by youth justice workers and forced to wear spit hoods in a South Australian detention centre, a report by the state’s ombudsman has found.

SA is the last state in Australia to permit the use of spit hoods in youth detention centres after their use in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale youth detention centre was exposed and sparked a royal commission in 2016.

The Northern Territory is still fighting a civil case on the use of spit hoods.

The Marshall government has given an in-principle commitment to phase out the use of the hoods by 5 September next year.

Ombudsman Wayne Lines recommended the use of spit hoods be phased out within a year and the devices be removed from the list of approved mechanical restraints in youth detention facilities.

Prison staff in an isolation cell with a child wearing a spit hood. Findings of mistreatment, abuse and breach of human rights, reminiscent of Don Dale, have been exposed by the findings of the South Australian Ombudsman.
Prison staff enter an isolation cell with a child wearing a spit hood. Photograph: Supplied

In a report released this week, he said their use was “inherently traumatic” and not consistent with the “objects and guiding principles of the youth justice system”.

Spit hoods have been used at the Adelaide Youth Training Centre (AYTC) since 2014 and their use has been recorded since 2016. Between October 2016 and June 2019 they were used on 57 occasions against 22 kids. One-third of all reported uses of spit hoods were against the one child, who was placed in a spit hood 19 times in nine months.

Lines said the hoods were also in breach of international rules around the treatment of prisoners and increased the risk of potentially fatal asphyxiation because children were often pinned in a prone position by several adults to get the hood on their head. The use of spit hoods has been linked to deaths in custody in the UK and United States.

Lines reviewed the CCTV of 12 incidents where spit hoods were applied, during which children aged between 12 and 17 were restrained by a number of adult staff members.

In one case, a 13-year-old girl was pinned to the floor by five staff members who put a spit hood on her head and handcuffed her hands behind her back, after she refused to go to bed.

In another, 12 staff members went into a cell of a 17-year-old boy, which was not covered by CCTV, and emerged four minutes later with the boy handcuffed and wearing a spit hood. Both the boy and one staff member were later taken to hospital for assessment.

In every case but one, the child was forced to the floor at some point during the interaction.

Five workers hold a 13-year-old child to the floor as a spit hood is applied.
Five workers hold a 13-year-old child to the floor as a spit hood is applied. Photograph: Supplied

“Children thrash about at the sight of the implement; some appear to be taken by surprise as it passes over their eyes; many appear to be crying when it is finally removed,” Lines said.

“Having reviewed the footage supplied to my investigation, I have no doubt that the application of a spit hood is an inherently traumatic event for the child or young person involved.”

Other states require that staff wear safety goggles and disposable surgical masks when handling detainees to mitigate the risk of contracting a blood-borne disease.

The SA Department of Human Services, which manages the facility, accepted in-principle recommendations to phase out spit hoods but said that removing them as an option was “problematic at this time” in “a very specific and limited set of circumstances where other methods such as personal protective equipment are not viable or available”.

It did not accept a recommendation that legislation governing the management of youth justice facilities should be amended to end the use of force to “maintain order,” restricting it to circumstances necessary to prevent a person from harming themselves or others.

Two-thirds of the detainees at AYTC are Indigenous. Cheryl Axleby, co-chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, said she was “horrified” by the report.

“These primary school-aged kids were treated worse than animals,” Axleby said. “They were pinned down and subject to risk of asphyxiation, which would cause immense trauma.”

  • This article was amended on 26 September 2019 to clarify the Ombudsman’s recommendation on use of force.

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Calla Wahlquist

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