A review into an incident at Canberra’s jail where an Indigenous woman was forcibly strip-searched has found that she had her human rights violated.
The 37-year old woman was held down and had her clothes removed, or cut off, during an incident at Canberra’s Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) earlier this year.
She wrote a letter describing the incident, where she said she felt “absolute fear and shame”.
Inspector of Correctional Services Neil McAllister released a report today, in which he described the incident as “degrading and traumatising” and committed to implementing two body scanners to avoid resorting to strip searches in the future.
Recent data showed that over a period of months until earlier this year, strip searches were conducted on Indigenous women twice as often as non-Indigenous women at Canberra’s jail.
Woman had suffered sexual assault prior to strip search
In the letter the woman wrote describing the incident, she said in the days prior she had become upset on learning she would not be able to attend her grandmother’s funeral, accompanied by officers, for logistical reasons.
She said she was then moved to the crisis support unit due to concerns for her wellbeing, and was placed in a cell, before the strip search took place.
“The female officers were in full squad gear,” the woman wrote in her letter.
“There [sic] intention was to forcefully remove all of my clothing by cutting my clothes clean off.”
The woman said she had recently been a victim of sexual assault, and the strip search had taken place in front of men at the prison.
“So you can only imagine the horror, the screams, the degrading feeling, the absolute fear and shame I was experiencing,” she wrote.
But the review stated there was no reason to believe any male detainees witnessed the strip search.
However, the report did find that there was non-essential staff, including men, present during the “use of force” to search the woman.
Mr McAllister’s report found the strip search itself had been lawful, but the attempt to forcibly remove the woman’s clothing was inconsistent with the ACT human rights legislation.
The report handed down by Mr McAllister found:
“ACT corrective services did not properly consider Detainee A’s human rights in making the decision to conduct a forced strip search.
“There is no doubt that the use of force would have been a highly traumatic incident for Detainee A, particularly given her recent history of sexual assault, her ongoing mental health condition, and the feelings of loss and grief experienced from the sudden death of her grandmother.”
‘All they’re doing is re-traumatising people’: community leader says
CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services Julie Tongs, called for an inquiry after the incident garnered media attention.
She said it was time for corrective services to reconsider how they treated prisoners in the AMC.
“They need to change the way that they do things out there and stop being so punitive. All they’re doing is re-traumatising people,” she said.
Ms Tongs said the incident showed that racism continued to plague the corrective services system, and that people should not be punished for suffering mental health conditions.
“Absolutely racism is an issue. It’s probably the number one issue in prisons. And the punitive behaviour and the disgusting, derogatory manner in which staff are allowed to speak to people,” she said.
She said a royal commission into the AMC had been requested.
“Canberra needs to take a good look at itself,” she said.
“This could be anyone’s daughter, or even son, that’s been subjected to this sort of behaviour over the years.
“Drugs and alcohol and mental health don’t discriminate, and unfortunately, people do.”
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