Corrections no better than Serco when it comes to running prisons


PRISON AUTHORITIES have been accused of cultivating an unsafe’ work environment where a blind eye is turned to workplace bullying, intimidation and the sexual abuse of staff members.

The allegations have been leveled by high-profile barristers Brian Henry and Alistair Dunlop, and come hard on the heels of ongoing controversy about prison fight clubs and the private management of Mt Eden Correctional Facility.

In July the Government stepped in and took back control of Mt Eden Prison from Serco after a series of wide-ranging allegations, including claims inmates had been physically assaulted and thrown off balconies in a practice known as ‘dropping’.

But if Henry and Dunlop are to be believed, things are no better in Corrections-run prisons.

The department, which operates 20 prisons housing 8500 inmates and employing more than 4000 staff, is facing a stern examination of its own management practices in the wake of claims it has cultivated an environment where workplace bullying, intimidation and the sexual abuse of staff members generally goes unpunished.

The claims are detailed in an employment case brought against Corrections by former staff member Deborah Owen, who resigned back in May 2011.

Owen claimed she’d been forced to resign after Corrections failed to respond appropriately to allegations that during her time with the department she had been subjected to years of sexual abuse.

Owen’s case is being handled by Henry and Dunlop, who say Owen suffered ‘long outstanding sexual abuse and similarly, long ignored complaints of the said sexual abuse”.   

Henry and Dunlop say they believe Corrections has cultivated an environment in which sexual and general harassment goes on ‘unrestricted’.

In Owen’s case, it was alleged that Corrections failed to discipline a person who had repeatedly harassed her – and this was despite the fact a formal complaint had been lodged.

In doing nothing, Henry and Dunlop say, the department had created and fostered an unsafe work environment.

They also say Corrections cultivated this unsafe environment by mismanaging the issues raised by Owen. As a result, Owen was subjected to ongoing intimidation and bullying and her concerns and complaints were belittled because they were not addressed adequately.

In addition to that, Corrections mishandled health and safety issues and the manner in which it dealt with Owen’s resignation.

Corrections have denied all the allegations, maintaining it ‘acted as a good employer, in good faith and in a fair and reasonable manner towards Owen.

It says it supported Owen’s return to work after a number of absences, reviewed her caseload to ensure it was not too high and carefully considered issues and concerns as she raised them.

But what doesn’t appear ‘fair and reasonable’ is the time it’s taken to resolve this case.

Owen filed a complaint with the Employment Relations Authority back in July 2012`, claiming she had been unjustifiably and constructively dismissed.

Since then the wheels of justice have turned at snail-like pace.

After an attempt at mediation failed, the matter was supposed to progress to an investigation meeting but that ended up being a painstaking process after claims Owen could not precisely pinpoint what her grievance was with the department.

A four-day meeting was scheduled for the end of February last year, but that was called off after Owen said she was not in a position to proceed.

Since then there have been squabbles over which jurisdiction the case should be heard in, whether the case should be reassigned to another Authority member – and now claims Owen’s right to a fair hearing has been breached.

In the meantime, the case drags on. A hearing is expected to take place sometime next year – a full five years after Owen resigned.

cookStephen Cook is a multi award winning journalist and former news editor and assistant editor of the Herald on Sunday.

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