• The 37-year-old Indigenous woman is being held on remand at Alexander Maconochie Centre in Canberra. (AAP)Source: AAP
The sexual assault survivor detailed in a letter the "absolute fear and shame" she felt during the alleged incident at Canberra's only prison.
Shahni Wellington

27 Jan 2021 - 5:35 PM  UPDATED 27 Jan 2021 - 5:35 PM

An Indigenous woman has been allegedly strip-searched by prison staff in "full view" of male inmates, in an ordeal described as "heartless and totally unacceptable" by a local Aboriginal health service.

The 37-year-old is on remand at the Alexander Maconochie Centre, located in Canberra, which detains both male and female prisoners classed up to maximum security. 

In a letter penned by the woman, she details how she was allegedly stripped naked by prison staff - Including two male officers and two male nurses - and claims it was visible by multiple male detainees. 

NITV News will not disclose her identity due to privacy reasons.

The woman is a sexual assault survivor and has various health issues, including Borderline Personality Disorder and a heart condition. 

Earlier this month, a request to attend her grandmother's funeral was denied “due to logistics,” which caused her to become “very upset”.

She said a number of prison guards and nurses tried to move her to the Crisis Support Unit, “because they fear for my safety and mental health”.

It was in this cell block that the incident allegedly occurred in view of "5-7 men", and the woman said she was menstruating at the time which added to her distress. 

“Here I ask you to remember that I am a rape victim, so you can only imagine the horror, the screams, the degrading feeling, the absolute fear and shame I was experiencing … as well as the grief and despair, disappointment of not being able to attend my grandmother’s funeral,” she wrote.

"The female officers were in full squad gear," she said.

"There [sic] intention was to forcefully remove all of my clothing by cutting my clothes clean off."

The 12-page letter also details alleged incidences of racism experienced over the last six months.

It was provided to the ACT Ombudsman, the ACT Human Rights Commissioner and the ACT Inspector of Corrections.

Calls for immediate investigation and inquiry 

A letter supporting the detainee was also penned by Wiradjuri woman and Chief Executive of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal health service, Julie Tongs.

The woman involved in the incident has been a long-term client of the service, which also runs a daily clinic at the prison.

Ms Tongs is calling for an immediate, independent investigation into the incident as well as a broader inquiry into systemic racism in the territory's prison system.

"People should be stood down until this is investigated, those people that were involved in this incident, you don't treat a distressed person like that,"

"Because there are other ways of psychological interventions that you can do with distressed people," she said.

The calls have been made less than 12 months after an unrelated racist incident at the Alexander Maconochie Centre.

Ms Tongs described the recent alleged treatment as "egregious, heartless and totally unacceptable."

"I cried, I was devastated," she said upon reading the letter.

"The impact that it has not only on her, but the people around her - When you know somebody and you know their life circumstances, then it's a hard pill to swallow to know that this sort of behaviour happens in a so-called human rights compliant prison," Julie Tongs told NITV News.

It follows a 2019 report by the ACT corrections inspector that recommended the state government find a solution to the close proximity of women to men's units in the prison. 

A 2014 report by the Human Rights Commission referenced issues in the operation of the Crisis Support Unit, stating "women detainees face isolation and limitations on their privacy in this environment."

Review underway

Both letters have been received by the Minister for Corrections, Mick Gentleman and his department.

While Ms Tongs said she has had no official response, a statement was provided to NITV News by a spokesperson for Mr Gentleman's office.

It reads, "These allegations are serious in nature and will be thoroughly reviewed by ACT Corrective Services (ACTCS)."

"ACTCS are aware that the ACT Human Rights Commission (HRC) is investigating similar allegations from this detainee and will provide full assistance during this process.

It goes on to say that any use of force on a detainee is reviewed by an internal committee to ensure it was justified and appropriate.