‘Disbelief’ when teen found unresponsive in youth wing

Aaron Bunch |

A youth wing at adult prison Casuarina was “set up to fail”, a corrections worker told an inquest.
A youth wing at adult prison Casuarina was “set up to fail”, a corrections worker told an inquest.

The corrections worker who found the first juvenile to die in youth detention in Western Australia did not initially understand what he was seeing as he peered through the boy’s cell door.

Youth custodial officer Daniel Torrijos discovered Cleveland Dodd unresponsive inside his cell in the youth wing of a high-security adult prison in the early hours of October 12, 2023.

The 16-year-old had made eight threats to self-harm in the hours before Mr Torrijos saw his motionless body in Unit 18 at Perth’s Casuarina Prison and unlocked the door.

He told an inquest into Cleveland’s death in a hospital eight days later, due to a brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen, that he “thought (he) was seeing things” as he looked into the cell.

 “I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing … then I thought it could be Cleveland playing a trick,” he said in the witness box on Friday.

 “I banged thinking he would react … I might have just said: ‘Cleveland what the hell’.”

“It was a reaction of disbelief.”

CCTV shown to the court of the incident shows Mr Torrijos with a torch looking into Cleveland’s cell through a viewing panel on the door from various angles.

Supplied image of Cleveland Dodd
Cleveland Dodd made eight threats to self-harm before his cell door was opened, an inquest was told. (HANDOUT/SUPPLIED)

He said that when he saw the boy’s face he realised “he was definitely gone”.

Mr Torrijos was not carrying a radio, which is Department of Justice policy, nor did he have keys to open the cell and video shows him walking hurriedly up a flight of stairs to a manager’s office to retrieve them.

“I thought I said Cleveland’s f***ing (self-harmed), I need the keys,” he said when asked what he told the senior officer.

“It might not have looked like I was going quick but it’s as quick as I can go.”

The court heard that after Mr Torrijos returned to Cleveland’s cell and opened the door he lowered the boy onto the floor and with the help of other staff attempted to resuscitate him until paramedics arrived and took over.

Mr Torrijos also said Unit 18 was not prepared for youth inmates when it was opened in 2022, and a lot of his colleagues did not want to work there because they knew it was “chaos” at the facility.

“It was set up to fail and that’s how it was perceived by a lot of officers,” he said.

“Everyone didn’t feel that positive that it was going to be successful at Unit 18.”

Rally over the death of Indigenous teen Cleveland Dodd in Perth
Cleveland Dodd’s death sparked outrage in the community and triggered an expedited coronial inquest. (Aaron Bunch/AAP PHOTOS)

Mr Torrijos said many of the boys at the unit had mental health issues and were in “destructive mode” after being involved in major incidents at Banksia Hill Youth Detention Centre before they were transferred.

He also painted a bleak picture of WA’s youth justice system, including staff assaults, rolling lockdowns due to staff shortages, limited schooling and riots, in the three years before Cleveland died.

“Chaos … A lot of boys self-harming… It was pretty full-on,” he said of one unit at Banksia Hill.

Some detainees spent so much time in their cells they were able to dismantle walls brick by brick and escape.

“They’d be lucky to get out of a cell for one hour and that’s if we had the staff,” he said.

Mr Torrijos said he and other staff members raised concerns with management about the short-staffing and their inability to regularly check on at-risk detainees, but they were told to make do. 

He was transferred to Unit 18 about a year before Cleveland died, saying it was “destroyed” by the time he arrived and continued to experience major incidents, including fires and breakouts.

The cells were “unliveable” and many had wires hanging down, broken windows and plumbing, with no running water or flushing toilets or working showers.

“It was just chaotic,” he said.

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AAP