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‘Toxic’ workplace culture at Vic prison

A toxic, gossip and innuendo-fuelled workplace culture dominated a Melbourne prison in the lead-up to a guard taking his own life, a coroner has found.

But Coroner Jacqui Hawkins says there is not enough evidence to conclude 53-year-old Bill Maxwell was bullied or harassed at work before his March 2018 suicide.

His wife previously told an inquest Mr Maxwell was ostracised by other staff after he provided statements about an alleged 2016 assault involving another guard at the Melbourne Assessment Prison.

Ms Hawkins on Friday concluded there was a “toxic culture” when Mr Maxwell worked at MAP, “particularly in relation to when an officer writes up another officer”.

“The culture was fuelled by gossip and innuendo,” the coroner said.

“There was an accepted unwritten code that you should always have another officer’s back and never dob on or make an adverse statement about a fellow officer.

“There was also a strong belief that if you did there would be consequences.”

Ms Hawkins accepted this could create a “a significant health and safety risk”.

Fifteen months before Mr Maxwell was found dead at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, the inquest was told he witnessed an incident at MAP involving fellow guard Prem Chand.

A prisoner became abusive and aggressive, and headbutted and punched Chand. Mr Maxwell helped his colleague restrain the man, who was taken to a cell.

It was alleged Chand then kicked the prisoner’s head while he was handcuffed and restrained.

Chand was suspended and then fired, while Mr Maxwell provided statements to Corrections Victoria.

The first didn’t mention he saw a prisoner officer kicking the inmate while the second did, but without naming Chand.

Mr Maxwell was subsequently moved to the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and promoted.

He told some colleagues and friends he’d received backlash for changing his statement, but did not detail any specific incidents.

His wife Tracey Kendall said her husband was told he should not have “dogged on a blue shirt”.

The inquest was also told about an allegedly fabricated letter in which Mr Maxwell sought Chand’s forgiveness for providing statements against him.

The letter said Mr Maxwell had been asked to change his statement to match that of a supervisor’s.

Chand was accused of fabricating the document to try to get his job back in a Fair Work Commission case.

Mr Maxwell was observed drinking and smoking more regularly in the lead up to his death.

Days before, his wife asked him to move out because she thought he was cheating on her. Mr Maxwell then texted a friend saying he’d “really screwed up at home”.

Ms Hawkins found a number of stressors could have contributed to Mr Maxwell taking his own life.

She did not make any recommendations and acknowledged “substantial changes” made by Corrections Victoria after Mr Maxwell’s death.

These included a “cultural reform strategy”, the introduction of a staff support program and a “speak up guideline”, as well as presentations about workplace bullying and the formal acknowledgement of R U OK Day.

Meanwhile, Chand has been charged with three offences, including common law assault and fabricating evidence in a Commonwealth proceeding.

He is due in Melbourne Magistrates Court for a diversion hearing on June 3.

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