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Prison officer with mental health issues wins job back after assaulting three inmates

The NSW Industrial Relations Commission has ordered the reinstatement of a decorated senior prison officer who assaulted three inmates in separate occasions while suffering from a mental illness.

The events leading to the employee’s dismissal may have been avoided or minimised had the employer identified the early symptoms of mental illness in the workplace and taken preventative action.

 

The Senior Prison Officer had worked for the correctional services employer for over 22 years. In January 2015 police arrested and charged the officer with the common assault of two inmates and an assault occasioning actual bodily harm to another inmate he repeatedly struck in the head and upper body before a strip-search.

The assaults were referred to a local court and the Senior Prison Officer placed on good behaviour bonds. A conviction was recorded only for the most serious offence - however, this was withdrawn on appeal, with the judge noting that the employee was suffering from a major depressive disorder before the incident.

The Senior Prison Officer had been dealing with the passing of his mother, assaults by prisoners, a coward king hit off-duty in a pub and insubordination and abuse from junior officers. After complaining about the latter, no action was taken by management, leaving him feeling unsupported.

The Senior Prison Officer was decorated, having received medals for exemplary service. He was the officer in charge of the response to a disturbance at the Long Bay Hospital which was reported in the media as being “the worst riot in 25 years”. The officer liaised with Centre Management and other units to formulate a three-day staggered return to normal routine. The operation was successful.

The employer dismissed the employee in March 2016, as they were not satisfied that there would not be a recurrence "particularly when he could not even recall one of the instances when he used force, without reasonable cause, against an inmate".

The commissioner stated that there was "reliable medical evidence" that his conduct was "caused by or contributed to by mental illness that he was suffering at the time of the incidents which led to his dismissal".

"Weighing all of these mitigating factors against the seriousness of the misconduct, I am of the opinion that the dismissal of [the officer] was, in all the circumstances, harsh," the commissioner noted.

The commissioner ordered the employee’s reinstatement, with his service to be taken as unbroken, but did not order payment for the period between his dismissal and returning to work nor order that it be counted "as service for any purpose".

Such a costly and time consuming legal dispute may have been avoided had the employer been able to identify that the Senior Officer was suffering from a mental illness and that this was impacting his workplace performance.

The incidents leading to the dismissal occurred on three separate occasions. The first incident occurred in September 2014, the second in December 2014 and the third in January 2015. Arguably, preventative measures could have been taken after the first incident.

After the first incident the then Manager of Security, Court Escort Security Unit (‘CESU’), submitted a report to the Professional Standards Committee (‘PSC’) about the September incident on the 22nd of September and suggested that excessive force had been used and that the statements of the Senior Officer were not consistent with the actions observed on the CCTV footage.

When this report was made the employer potentially could have considered whether the employee was fit for work and undertaken a mental health assessment and considered more appropriate duties for the employee. This would have saved the organisation considerable cost and time.

Such a dispute would have been disruptive for the employer as valuable time and resources would have been devoted to resolving this dispute rather than focusing on achieving correctional outcomes.

The reputational risk is also significant in cases such as this. Inmates may be more likely to distrust prison officers after incidents such as this, which would impact on the day to day functioning of the prison. It would also impact of the employer of choice status and the workplace culture.

iHR believes that prevention is the best cure and it is important that managers work with employees to establish the underlying causes of inappropriate workplace behaviour. Managers need to look for early indicators of mental illness and effectively manage staff who are showing signs of mental illness while adhering to their legal responsibilities. iHR offers training in mental health management to assist employers in managing their legal requirements when encountering mental illness in the workplace.

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