• Human Rights Law Centre executive director Hugh de Kretser calls for an independent inquiry (AAP)
Canberra's Aboriginal community is asking how a young Aboriginal inmate at the local jail was allegedly bashed so badly he ended up in a coma within hours of arriving.
By
Myles Morgan

Source:
NITV News
22 May 2015 - 5:16 PM  UPDATED 29 Jun 2015 - 8:31 PM

ACT Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury confirmed police were investigating an incident that occurred in April when a detainee was transported to Canberra hospital in a critical condition, Fairfax reported.

The continuing calls for an independent inquiry cast a shadow over the national Sorry Day bridge walk in the capital.

According to Julie Tongs, the head of the local Aboriginal health service, the inmate, Steven Freeman, believed he was in a car accident after waking from his coma.

"He still has no memory of what happened so he does have a brain injury," said the CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah at Friday’s annual Sorry Day Bridge Walk in Canberra.

"There definitely has to be an independent investigation because if this just flies under the radar, it could be a lot worse next time. The next person may not live and there will be a next time."

Mr Freeman, a 24-year-old Aboriginal man who often visited Winnunga Nimmityjah, was arrested on April 27 for alleged car thefts and was remanded into custody at Canberra’s Alexander Maconochie Centre.

"He still has no memory of what happened so he does have a brain injury"

Two to three hours after arriving, Steven Freeman was allegedly bashed and left in a critical condition.

"Steven's mother is very traumatised by this. Very upset. Regardless of what Steven did, no mother deserves to go through this," Ms Tongs said.

After awaking from his coma, Mr Freeman was taken back to the correctional facility and is now awaiting his next court appearance. He believed his injuries had been caused by a car crash.

The Human Rights Law Centre backed Winnunga Nimmityjah’s call for an inquiry, separate to the police investigation

"An internal investigation by the police, an internal investigation by Corrections is not sufficient and doesn't satisfy the international law standard, nor does it satisfy public confidence," said the Centre’s Executive Director Hugh de Kretser.

"We need transparency around these issues, we need to get to the bottom of what happened and my understanding is there have been no guarantees around that."

According to the last annual report from ACT’s Justice and Community Safety Directorate, there are about 80 Indigenous prisoners at the Alexander Maconochie Centre on any given day.

With about 300 prisoners in the AMC, Indigenous inmates make up nearly 30 per cent of the total prison population. It’s a statistic that is broadly true for many Australian prisons.

"An internal investigation by the police, an internal investigation by Corrections is not sufficient"

"Aboriginal people are imprisoned at 12 times the rate of non-Indigenous people in the ACT, so greater risk to them of deaths in custody, assaults like this," Mr de Kretser said.

The ACT’s Corrections Management Act states that upon initial assessment at prison, each "detainee admitted to a correctional centre is assessed as soon as practicable to identify any immediate physical or mental health, or safety or security, risks and needs."

The ACT’s Human Rights Act also states that an "accused person [like Mr Freeman] must be segregated from convicted people, except in exceptional circumstances."

"I have had detailed briefings from ACT Corrective Services about the incident involving Mr Freeman," the ACT’s Justice Minister Shane Rattenbury told NITV News.

"I am advised that the ACT Policing investigation into this matter is ongoing, and ACT Corrective Services is fully assisting in this process."

Mr Rattenbury, who is also the ACT’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister, wouldn’t be drawn on the potential for an independent investigation.

"Once these processes have been completed, I will be in a better position to consider what further actions may be required."