An independent inquiry is needed into the violent bashing of an Aboriginal man in custody in the Australian Capital Territory.
Less than 3 hours after being remanded at the ACT’s Alexander Maconochie Centre on 27 April 2015, Steven Freeman was the victim of a severe assault and was taken to Canberra Hospital where he was placed in an induced coma for almost a week. It is unclear whether he has sustained irreversible brain damage.
CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service, Julie Tongs, said that the public has a right to know what happened, and that an independent inquiry will provide much needed answers to Mr Freeman’s family.
“There are so many unanswered questions. How is it that three hours after a healthy young man was placed into custody, he found himself severely beaten and in an induced coma? Mr Freeman’s family, the Aboriginal community, and the broader ACT community should be told the full facts of what happened. An independent inquiry will do just that,” said Ms Tongs.
It is understood that the ACT Police are undertaking a criminal investigation.
“A police investigation is not enough. We also need an investigation that is independent, transparent and that will examine the systemic failures. It is in the public interest that when things go tragically wrong like this, that the Government is publicly held to account’, said Ms Tongs.
Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, Ruth Barson, said international human rights law requires that an independent investigation be held in instances of harm and mistreatment within a prison.
“People in prison are in a vulnerable position and the Government has a duty to protect them. The UN is clear that where a prisoner’s human rights might have been violated, investigations must be prompt, thorough and effective, and they must be conducted by an independent and impartial body,” said Ms Barson.
Under the ACT’s Human Rights Act people in prison have a right to be treated humanely. In addition, people on remand who have not yet been found guilty are to be held separately from sentenced prisoners.
“It is vital that the ACT Government uphold human rights standards, be accountable for the safety of prisoners in their care, and be transparent when a critical incident occurs. An independent inquiry will ensure that the Government learns from any mistakes and that a tragedy like this doesn’t happen again,” said Ms Tongs.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise approximately 21 percent of the prison population in Alexander Maconochie Centre, and overall are locked up at 12 times the rate of the non-Indigenous ACT population. Imprisonment rates in the ACT have been increasing exponentially over the last decade, leading to inadequate and potentially unsafe prison conditions.
“It is clear that the ACT’s prison system is over-crowded. This incident should be a wakeup call for the ACT Government that they need to invest more in early intervention and diversionary strategies,” said Ms Barson.
“Over 20 years ago, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody warned that Government’s need to put in place measures to reduce the number of Aboriginal people being locked up. It is clearly time for the ACT Government to heed this warning and take steps to address Aboriginal peoples’ over-imprisonment,” said Ms Barson.
For media inquiries:
Julie Tongs: 0418 206 156
Ruth Barson: 0417 773 037