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We Need a National Ban on Spit Hoods

After a multitude of preventable deaths and distressing reports highlighted across Australia, the US, and the UK that mirror each other, it amplifies the question: Why are spit hoods being condoned at all?

This article discusses themes of racism, trauma, violence, and death.

You might recognise them. It is a struggle to wipe them from the public conscience.

You might remember them from the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, sparked by damning visuals exposed in a Four Corners report in 2016. A then 13-year-old Aboriginal boy, Dylan Voller, was recorded on prison CCTV strapped to a chair and wearing one allegedly for almost two hours. Findings from a 2019 South Australian Ombudsman’s report shared the horrific reality of the torture device being used upon a 13-year-old girl. She was pinned down by five correctional officers, her face pushed into the cement in a prone position.

“She was pinned down by five correctional officers, her face pushed into the cement in a prone position.”

In a similar occurrence, Isaiah, a 12-year-old African-American boy and his parents sued the Sacramento police department last year for US$100,000, citing damages relating to negligence and emotional distress after he was filmed being pinned down in the street with one forced over his head. Likewise, in two cases represented by Budge & Heipt, both parties sued for settlements greater than US$1.5 million each after being brutally restrained with the apparatus; causing death in one case, and serious injury in the other. Hence, calls from human rights organisations, activists, and families of victims across the globe to ban the archaic device are only growing louder.

They are spit hoods.

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A spit hood is (typically) a mesh-fabric device purposed to conceal the mouth, face, and often head of the restrained person. It is normally secured around the neck with an elastic band. The South Australia Metropolitan Operations Service Policy on the use of spit masks states that they “should only be used when: the detained person is under control and restrained”. Their application is usually coupled with brute force as it is put over a person’s head in order to prevent them spitting at, or biting others.

The age-old debate surrounding the use of spit hoods has reared its head again during the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to police and correctional officer protections.

Despite Amnesty International raising human rights concerns regarding use of spit hoods, and in June 2020 obtaining “police admission that spit hoods offer no significant protection against COVID-19 and may actually increase infection risk”, Australia continues to permit their use on adults across the country, and are being utilised as a means-to-a-literal-end for some of our loved ones.

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In March 2020, Irish police ordered 16,000 more spit hoods. The order arrived three days after the brutal restraint of 41-year-old, African-American man Daniel Prude, whose life support machine was turned off on the 30th March, 2020. Mr Prude was allegedly suffering mental health issues when his brother called for assistance for Mr Prude’s protection.

Three police officers from the Rochester New York Police Department alleged that Mr Prude – a father of five – had told them he was infected with COVID-19 and hence, they hooded him: eventually pushing his face into the bitumen. Mr Prude was naked and unarmed at the time. His cause of death included “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint”. Upon Mr Prude’s case becoming public knowledge, seven officers involved received disciplinary action, being suspended from duty. A grand jury subsequently launched an investigation into his death.

Photograph by Charandev Singh

Reading of such events, I am disturbed at the haunting similarities between Mr Prude’s and my own brother’s death. I too watched my brother, Wayne Fella Morrison’s, final assisted breath alongside two of my other siblings as his life support machine was switched off.

“I too watched my brother, Wayne Fella Morrison’s, final assisted breath.”

Just like the activists who continue to march for justice for Mr Prude, I too immediately sought justice from the state – the ones who are charged with my brother’s care in his final days of life in Yatala Prison, South Australia. Wayne died at 3:50am on a Monday morning. By 4:10am I had walked from the hospital to the steps of South Australia’s Parliament House to demand answers from the then Premier, Jay Weatherill. Such questions that my family and community hold are still yet to be answered.

The basis of what we know thus far is that Wayne was restrained with a spit hood – at one point by more than 14 prison officers, cuffed by his wrists and ankles, and placed face down in the back of a prison transport van after merely six days on remand – his first and last time in prison. There was no CCTV technology available inside the van with seven prison officers inside, and there were no body cameras. He was pulled out unconscious. 

Unlike the police who were immediately suspended in Mr Prude’s case, the 18 correctional officers and others involved, including the seven officers in the transport van, have had the option to retain their jobs.

“The 18 correctional officers and others involved have had the option to retain their jobs.”

Wayne was never convicted of any offence. He had no prior dealings with police or prisons. He was a 29-year-old artist and fisherman. He leaves behind my young niece and our family who love and miss him dearly.

To date we have contributed to a Parliamentary Inquiry, a damning Ombudsman Inquiry, waited through multiple delays – including a review of the Coroner herself undertaking the inquest into Wayne’s death – and a Supreme Court review on the limitations of the court to question prison officers. More than four years on and we continue to fight for answers.

After a multitude of preventable deaths and distressing reports highlighted across Australia, the US, and the UK that mirror each other, it amplifies the question: Why are spit hoods being condoned at all?

“After a multitude of preventable deaths and distressing reports […] Why are spit hoods being condoned at all?”

In December 2020 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS), in support of our Aboriginal families who have lost loved ones in custodial settings, launched our petition calling on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to meet with us in April 2021 on the 30th Anniversary since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Report was launched.

One demand we will put to Federal Parliament is the call for a national ban on spit hoods in all carceral environments across Australia. Our family will never forget the moments I describe in this article; moments of deep grief and torment knowing that our brother’s death, and many just like his, remain avoidable.

Please stand with our families and sign and share our petition to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Read Alison Whittaker feature piece, Black Lives Matter Redux: The Enduring Injustice of First Nations Deaths in Custody.

Read Carly Stanley & Keenan Mundine’s collaborative feature piece, Transforming Justice.