A damning report has found a strip search of an Indigenous woman at Canberra's prison earlier this year breached the ACT's human rights legislation, and regular strip searches in the crisis support unit also breached the laws.
It has prompted renewed calls for the ACT government to set up an inquiry into the experiences of First Nations people in the territory's justice system.
The report by the ACT Inspector of Correctional Services Neil McAllister found a female Indigenous detainee was strip searched in a bathroom in front of two female corrections officers on January 11.
The woman, who is a sexual abuse survivor, was on remand at the Alexander Maconochie Centre.
Mr McAllister found there was a prolonged struggle immediately before the search, when two corrections officers, wearing tactical personal protective equipment, used force to restrain the detainee while she complained of chest pains.
"There is no doubt that the use of force would have been a highly traumatic incident for [the detainee], 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," Mr McAllister's report found.
The woman alleged she was taken to the prison's Crisis Support Unit where she was forcibly strip searched by four officers in full riot gear and in full view of male detainees.
The detainee had initially refused to be moved to the crisis support unit, prompting staff to consider using force. The woman eventually agreed to move willingly, but refused a strip search, prompting a struggle in which the detainee bit a correctional officer's forearm.
The report found there was a lawful basis for the woman to be strip searched - due to a reasonable concern she had a seizable item - and for force to be used to do so under the Corrections Management Act.
Mr McAllister's report found the woman was then strip searched in a bathroom, out of view of male detainees., but 12 prison staff were in the immediate vicinity while the woman was restrained, including at least two male staff.
"That other male detainees in the CSU could not view the use of force or strip search but it is likely that it was clear to some of them what was going on because they could hear the incident and some engaged verbally in the incident from their own cells," the report said.
The report found it was "inexcusable" senior operational staff at the prison were not appropriately trained or required to consider the human rights impact of using force to strip search detainees.
"A human rights consistent approach would require considerations such as detainee's additional vulnerabilities and relevant medical conditions be considered when deciding whether to proceed with a forced strip search," the report said.
Mr McAllister's report said the detainee had medical conditions and restraining the woman significantly increased the risks to her health.
"We note that the decision to conduct a forced strip search was not an approach that all staff were entirely comfortable with. This incident has been stressful for some staff involved," the report said.
The report made 23 findings and nine recommendations.
Mr McAllister recommended the ACT Corrective Services remove the requirement for mandatory strip searches on entry into the prison's crisis support unit and explicitly consider human rights before using force to strip search detainees.
Mandatory strip searches did not have a clear rational connection between searching and detainees being safer, the report found.
There were 44 strip searches on admission to the crisis support unit in 2020, but only two led to the discovery of seizable items, the report noted.
Female detainees admitted to the unit were more likely to be strip searched than male detainees.
In response to the report, Corrections Minister Mick Gentleman said the ACT government would accelerate the $450,000 purchase of another full body scanner..
"ACT Corrective Services was already in the process of procuring a full body scanner for the AMC. In light of the Inspector's recommendation, we'll now procure two," Mr Gentleman said.
"I understand strip searches can be stressful and traumatising for both detainees and staff, and as a result we would like to minimise strip searching as much as possible.
"Through the procurement of these body scanners, we're moving towards a future where strip searches are only necessary in a small number of cases and as a last resort."
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Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services chief executive Julie Tongs said the report was an indictment of Alexander Maconochie Centre management, Corrective Services and the ACT government.
"I wish to acknowledge at the outset the courage and fortitude of the young Aboriginal woman, who lives with significant health issues, and who having been subjected to a demeaning and nightmarish strip search in the AMC, made the gruelling details of her treatment publicly available to the media and the Australian public in an attempt, as she said in her letter, to force ACT Corrective Services to respect the human rights of people detained in the AMC," Ms Tongs said.
The ACT Council of Social Services chief executive Dr Emma Campbell said the report reaffirmed the need for a royal commission-style inquiry into the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait and Islander people in the territory's justice system.
"We acknowledge that difficult decisions must be made by ACT Corrective Services staff to ensure the safety of detainees and staff is protected," Dr Campbell said.
"However, the human rights and wellbeing of detainees must be at the forefront of any decision to use force."
Dr Campbell urged Corrections Minister Mick Gentleman to implement all recommendations.
Senior Indigenous community leaders in the ACT have been calling for an inquiry for some months.
A group of 16 leaders unanimously agreed for the inquiry at a meeting in April.
Ms Tongs has previously said a wide-ranging board of inquiry was needed to look at over-representation of First Nations people in the territory's justice system.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith and Attorney-General have previously expressed some reservations about the royal commission proposal.
First Nations organisations and law groups have previously called for the ACT government to ban routine strip searches at the Alexander Maconochie Centre, after alarming data revealed Indigenous women were strip searched twice as often as non-Indigenous women.
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