A two-week long coronial inquest into a woman’s death in a prison in Queensland is expected to show shocking footage of her last moments, in which she repeatedly begged corrections officers for a puffer while she was restrained in a spit hood.
Selesa Tafaifa was 44-years-old when she died in Townsville Women’s Correctional Centre in November, 2021.
According to a Coroner’s Court document, body-worn cams and CCTV footage of the moments before her death “indicate” that Tafaifa died “following a prolonged period of physical restraint”, including “the application of handcuffs and the use of a spit hood” to cover her head, per ABC News.
A spit hood is a mesh sack-like covering that is pulled over prisoner’s heads, apparently to protect officers from spit (more on that later).
Tafaifa had significant health issues, including diabetes, schizoaffective disorder and asthma. Despite this, it took more than seven minutes for a medical assessment to be conducted after she first expressed she needed help.
Her family’s barrister Dan O’Gorman SC said the footage of her death “largely speaks for itself”.
“A mere five minutes and 30 seconds elapsed between the first use of physical force by officers against Selesa in the interview room to her appearing non-responsive on the floor of cell one,” O’Gorman told the court.
He said in those five minutes, Tafaifa “pleaded” for her puffer six times, and said “I can’t breathe” four times.
Tafaifa’s death has sparked calls to stop the use of spit hoods in prisons, on the grounds that they are dangerous for prisoners.
Queensland actually already stopped using spit hoods in police watch houses as of 2022, so it’s pretty weird that it didn’t extend this to its prisons.
Even more concerningly, the use of spit hoods in Queensland prisons actually increased by at least 51 cases between the 2018-2019 financial year and the 2021-2022 financial year, the ABC reports — and in the 2021-2022 financial year, more than half the prisoners who were subjected to the hoods were Indigenous.
Mind you, these numbers are also likely underreported.
Debbie Kilroy, CEO of Sisters Inside (an organisation that supports criminalised women and girls), is a long time campaigner against the use of spit hoods, which she says cause “fear and terror” for women in prisons.
“We’ve seen a policy to abolish spit hoods in watch houses by the Police Commissioner,” she said per ABC News.
“However, we need that legislated by this government across the board so spit hoods aren’t used at all.”
Assistant branch secretary of the Together Union Michael Thomas reckons the spit hoods are necessary to protect officers, despite the risk they present to prisoners. Shocking. (Together Union is the union that covers state workers like corrections officers, and people who work for Queensland health, for example.)
“They are a protection from assault. Some prisoners have a tendency to spit and this is merely protecting officers from that,” he said, per ABC News.
“I know people talk about human rights and so forth, but everyone has a right to go to work and not be assaulted.
“That’s the rights of correctional officers that are doing a hard job in an overcrowded system where the number of assaults are on the rise.”
If someone begins a sentence with “human rights, BUT,” then you know the take is going to be cooked.
Debbie Kilroy reckons the solution to this apparent safety issue is pretty simple: corrections officers can just wear safety gear or PPE instead of forcing prisoners into glorified sacks.
Honestly, it’s shocking that isn’t already the practice — it’s less terrifying and restrictive for prisons, and safer for officers who then wouldn’t need to wrestle the hoods onto them.
The coronial inquest into Tafaifa’s death will last two weeks and is expected to interrogate the use of spit hoods, which are outlawed in South Australia.
They were also ditched by the Australian Federal Police earlier this year after they were deemed both dangerous for prisons, and also kind of useless at protecting officers anyway.