Police Are Still Using Spit Hoods and Restraint Chairs on Children in the NT

“I think we ended up here because there’s ongoing systemic racism in the very foundation of Australia.”
Photo of protest
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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains the name of a person who has died.

A new set of data shared by Northern Territory Police shows that officers are still using spit hoods on children, in some cases as young as 12, more than five years after the territory’s Chief Minister pledged to do away with them altogether. 

A spit hood, otherwise known as a “spit mask” or “mesh hood”, is typically used by police to placate a detainee who an officer thinks might pose a risk to either themselves, or law enforcement. Critics of the device call them “torturous”, “cruel”, and even “primitive”, and across the world, their use has consistently resulted in death


According to Northern Territory Police, the use of spit hoods ballooned from just above an average of two uses per month in January 2019, to a 12-month high of about 14 in October that same year. A year down the track and police had turned to spit hoods to restrain detainees, whether on arrest or at a police facility, a total of 16 times. 

All told, spit hoods have been used 27 times across the Northern Territory since 2018, according to data shared with VICE by police, after it was first reported by NT News. As many as 21 of them were deployed after 2020, along with restraint chairs, which were used a total of six times between 2020 and 2021.

Deborah Di Natale, CEO at Northern Territory Council of Social Service, said it isn’t news that the use of spit hoods can cause major distress, particularly for youth detainees. 

“This is not a new issue,” Di Natale told VICE by email. “The South Australian Ombudsman found that the application of a spit hood is an inherently traumatic event for the child or young person involved,” she said.

“Further, Article 64 of the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty requires that restraints should only be used in exceptional circumstances.”


It wasn’t that long ago that a Royal Commission into the protection and detention of children in the Northern Territory took an even harder position. In chapter 13 of its recommendations, released in 2017, the board of inquiry suggested the state roll out a total ban on spit hoods and restraint chairs.

In its submission to the Royal Commission back in 2016, Amnesty International went so far as to say that the excessive use of restraints, spit hoods, physical abuse, and solitary confinement could in some cases even constitute “torture”, under the UN Convention Against Torture.

At the time, the Northern Territory’s Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, said he’d move on each of the Commission’s recommendations. In November 2017, Gunner said his government had already started work on reform, which he told the press would be “the most comprehensive overhaul of youth justice and child protection in NT history”. 

Gunner could not be reached by VICE for comment before the publication of this article. 

Just last year, however, members of Gunner’s government could be heard acknowledging the damage spit hoods and restraint chairs can cause among youth detainees. 

“We will not reintroduce things like spit hoods or strapping young offenders into chairs, and we will not be locking them up 24 hours a day in solitary confinement,” said Kate Worden, a Labor Territory minister during a debate over the territory’s new bail laws last March


High-ranking figures from across Northern Territory Police, meanwhile, say the use of spit hoods and restraint chairs is “highly controlled”, and that independent reviews are undertaken “in every instance”. 

Assistant Commissioner Bruce Porter told VICE that, in most cases, it’s within the best interest of “a youth” or someone “under 18 years of age” to be subjected to a spit hood if an officer determines the detainee could be a risk to themself, because NT Police don’t have any other options available to them. 

“The use of spit hoods is only for use on a person in custody (adult and youth offenders) who has or is threatening to spit at or on officers or other person/s in custody,” Porter said. 

“The options for police to deal with youth offenders demonstrating genuine self-harm behaviours is limited, with minimal alternate options for ensuring the safety of both youths in custody and police officers managing those youths when they are exhibiting such significant self-harm behaviours,” he said. 

“The Northern Territory Police are committed to ensuring the health and wellbeing of all youths taken into custody.”

Latoya Aroha Rule, a research associate at UTS's Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, said that until Australian law enforcement, and society writ large, can reckon with the systemic racism that underwrites the nation’s carceral system and legislatures, the safety of youth detainees will never be guaranteed. 


“I think we ended up where we are in this current state of the use of spit hoods – particularly on children – because of ongoing systemic racism in the very foundation of Australia,” Rule told VICE. 

In 2016, Rule’s brother, Wayne Fella Morrison, died in the custody of South Australian Police, just three days after being restrained with handcuffs, ankle “flexi” cuffs, and a spit hood, before being thrust face-down in the back of a van at Yatala Labor Prison. His death sparked a national campaign, led by Rule and their family, to outlaw the use of spit hoods around the country. 

South Australian policymakers, against all odds, complied and introduced a blanket ban on the use of spit hoods across the state. Now, Rule said she hopes that local communities around the country, particularly those home to Australia’s most bloated Aboriginal incarceration rates, are able to put similar pressure on their leaders. 

“It wasn’t until, of course, the death in custody of my brother following the Royal Commission into the NT that we got that bill forward, and achieved,” they said. 

“So, the fact that we have already been told that we can’t do it and have seen otherwise, due to people power, I continue to hold that hope, and continue to move forward, knowing that there’s more power in the people than there is people in power.”

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