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Justice dept ‘victimised’ prison officer

A prison officer viewed as a complainer after making allegations of sexual harassment and bullying was deliberately prevented from resuming her senior role within the NSW justice department.

On Monday, Rita James was awarded almost $39,000 in compensation after being victimised by the Department of Communities and Justice for making various complaints against management.

Ms James worked as a senior prison officer within the Intensive Drug and Alcohol Treatment Program at Windsor from 2002 until 2014 when she began working as a junior throughcare and placement officer.

After making allegations of sexual harassment and bullying against one of the program’s directors, she filed her first complaint about victimisation, saying she was prevented from working in her senior role due to the bullying claims she had made.

In April 2016, Ms James returned to work at Silverwater prison, still in a junior role, and filed a second complaint that she was again victimised by being prevented from continuing as a senior officer within Windsor prison’s drug program.

On Monday, the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal found the justice department initially failed to help Ms James return to work and that it only took action after she sought assistance from the state’s workplace health and safety regulator SafeWork.

“DCJ does not offer any innocent or probable explanation as to why it did not assist Ms James to return to work once she was fit to do so,” NCAT members Larissa Andelman and Dr Maree Murray wrote.

The department’s management used outdated medical opinions as a basis to prevent Ms James from returning to her previous role, viewing her as a complainer who would cause more trouble if she was allowed into her old position, the tribunal found.

“(The department) considered that Ms James’ complaints against managers created a concern that she could not effectively work at DCJ, and they did not want her to return to work.”

This bleak view led to the victimisation of Ms James and the imposition of harsh, onerous conditions within a claimed return to work plan, the tribunal found.

This included a forced mediation with two of the managers she had lodged complaints against, leading to direct harm.

“Ms James’ evidence is clear that she has suffered reputational damage, hurt feelings, humiliation, distress and embarrassment as a result of DCJ’s conduct of hampering her return to work following a period of workers compensation leave.”

As well as the $38,000 in compensation, NCAT ordered the reinstatement of Ms James into her old position provided she passed a medical assessment.

The justice department declined to comment.

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