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ACT government to set up Inspectorate of Custodial Services after death of Aboriginal inmate

Oversight will be strengthened into Canberra's jail after the death of Aboriginal inmate Steven Freeman last year.

ACT corrections minister Shane Rattenbury announced on Thursday the government would establish an Inspectorate of Custodial Services later this year, in response to two scathing reviews of the territory's prison system.

The agency would focus on improving care, safety and health of detainees and be similar to the model in place in Western Australia. 

Mr Rattenbury said while the details were still being ironed out, the inspector would have the power to walk into any place of detention, including the Alexander Maconochie Centre, the Bimberi Youth Detention Centre and the police and court cells, to examine the conditions. 

"They have that ability to be an external eye and give the community confidence that corrections is being adequately overseen," Mr Rattenbury said.

"Already there is considerable oversight of the AMC but a prison inspector will have that degree of expertise when it comes to prison matters."

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The new role would mean "some consolidation of existing oversight functions", Mr Rattenbury said.

"We don't want duplication, we don't want to take away oversight functions but part of the reason it will take until the end of the year to put in place is to look at getting that balance right with those existing functions."

The welfare of prisoners in Canberra's corrections system was the focus of both an auditor-general report and an independent inquiry into the death of Steven Freeman at the AMC last May.

About a year before he died, Mr Freeman had been almost fatally bashed inside his cell.

Former integrity commissioner Philip Moss found Mr Freeman's treatment in prison was marred a series of failings involving corrections, police, and health authorities.

In light of this, Mr Moss recommended the ACT Ombudsman provide oversight to the corrections system.

It took a death in custody for the government to start to listen to us. It shouldn't have been the case.

Julie Tongs

However the government decided to go a step further an install a separate agency to oversee the corrections system. 

The government has adopted eight of the nine recommendations made by Mr Moss made have been agreed to wholly or in principal.

But while Mr Moss found there was a need to introduce the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service at the jail, the government has only committed to forming a working group with the service.

"ACT Health will form a working group with the Justice and Community Safety Directorate and Winnunga to develop an integrated Aboriginal Health Service for the AMC," Mr Rattenbury said.

"This working group will be convened in March 2017 and will develop and agree on a contemporary and best practice model of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Service delivery at the AMC that conforms with human rights obligations at the facility and supports the ACT government's strategic goals to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage."

Mr Rattenbury said the model would be developed to consider "culture, infrastructure, human resources, referral processes".

While Winnunga chief executive Julie Tongs welcomed the government's response, she said it was not going to bring Mr Freeman back.

"I have a grieving family that are just traumatised and it is just trauma after trauma after trauma because they'll never, ever have any closure," Ms Tongs said.

"It took a death in custody for the government to start to listen to us. It shouldn't have been the case."

Ms Tongs said if Mr Moss had been called in to investigate the prison system when she first called for an independent inquiry, two weeks after the bashing, Mr Freeman would still be alive.

"Steven Freeman should never have died in that prison and we have a responsibility as a community to ensure that we do whatever we need to do to make sure that no other mother has to suffer the way Narelle has," Ms Tongs said.

"Every person in Canberra should be concerned about what's happened in that prison. Every person. You never know if it's going to be your child."