Criminal Law

By Elizabeth Beard

22.03.17

Answers to Steven Freeman’s Death in Custody Delayed until August

The coronial inquest into Indigenous detainee Steven Freeman’s death in custody in May 2016 has been delayed, at best, until August following five days of evidence. His passing away provoked the coronial inquiry to help comprehend its unusual and devastating circumstances.

Freeman was found to have passed away two days after commencing the methadone treatment whilst incarcerated at the Alexander Maconochie Centre. Evidence indicates that he may have choked to death due to methadone toxicity.

Freeman’s admission to the methadone program was extremely unusual as he did not have a history of opioid use. The Canberra Times reports that a fellow prisoner had warned Freeman against using methadone unnecessarily but that Freeman had persisted, expressing that he wanted to take it as a sedative to make his time in prison easier. Generally, the AMC has strict guidelines controlling how methadone can be administered to prisoners but it is not clear how these rules were applied in the case of Freeman.

Following the Royal Commission into Indigenous Deaths in Custody a recommendation was made that individual care plans be prepared for Aboriginal detainees after they are inducted into methadone programs. However, the AMC doctor confirmed that no plan had been created for Freeman and he had been treated under the prison’s standard operating procedure.

These circumstances of his death raise important issues regarding the disproportionate incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Minister for Corrections Shane Rattenbury stated ‘this death… points to this Government having to work harder to reduce the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are in custody.’

With the many questions Freeman’s death has raised, it is hoped the inquiry can provide some answers when it reconvenes in August.