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'I can't breathe': family demands spit hood ban

Rudi Maxwell -

When Selesa Tafaifa died in Townsville Women's Correctional Centre she was handcuffed and had a spit hood over her head.

The inquest into 44-year-old Tafaifa's death on November 30, 2021, began in Queensland this week.

Members of her family have travelled from Samoa and Aotearoa New Zealand to attend the inquest.

At a pre-inquest hearing in February, barrister Dan O'Gorman, representing Tafaifa's family, said the CCTV footage of her death showed the 44-year-old Samoan Australian saying "I can't breathe" four times and pleading for her asthma puffer on six occasions.

Tafaifa's daughter, brother and other young family members have started Pou O Toa, a traditional Ailao Afi and Siva Samoa dance group in her honour.

Latoya Rule from the National Ban Spit Hoods Coalition told AAP that no other family should experience the grief that Selesa's family and others continue to endure.

Last year the Queensland Police Service announced spit hoods would no longer be used in police watch houses but the announcement did not extend to prisons.

Prison officers are reportedly putting spit hoods over the face of Queensland prisoners about once every three days, with more than half of the inmates Indigenous Australians.

South Australia outlawed spit hoods in 2021.

Since then, multiple reviews into the use of spit hoods have occurred across the country.

In June the NT Ombudsman recommended legislation outlawing the use of spit hoods on children and adults.

The Australian Federal Police announced an operational ban on spit hoods in May 2023.

Latoya Rule, a First Nations person with Aboriginal and Maori heritage whose brother Wayne Fella Morrison died in custody in 2016, said the National Ban Spit Hoods Coalition would continue to stand with the Tafaifa family during the inquest.

"Our relationships as First Nations people and Pacific people far extends beyond our grief, but into solidarity and that's the most important relationship that we hold together," they said.

"Even though we come together through state-sanctioned violence, we transcend this process into something that is meaningful and creates tangible change for our people."

Ms Rule said it was disappointing that Queensland had not banned spit hoods.

"However, I think that this opportunity through Selesa's inquest presents yet another opportunity for the Queensland government to do the right thing," they said.

"Sitting with this family shows me that it is another avoidable death in custody, and that the inactions of the Queensland government thus far have contributed to this family's grief."

Queensland Corrective Services Minister Mark Ryan has been contacted for comment.

Tafaifa had a range of significant health issues including diabetes, asthma, obesity and schizo-affective disorder.

On November 27, 2021, she was reported to have attempted suicide in prison, was transferred to hospital and later returned to the Townsville Women's Correctional Centre.

The coroner will consider the cause of Tafaifa's death, the actions of prison staff, diabetes and mental health management in the facility, and the use of spit hoods.

The inquest continues.

Rudi Maxwell - AAP

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