1 Oct 2018

Payout to assaulted prison guard a 'landmark' decision

11:15 am on 1 October 2018

A $56,000 payout to a prison guard left traumatised by an inmate's attack is being hailed as a 'landmark' decision.

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The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) has found the Department of Corrections didn't do enough to stop the assault happening in the first place, and then failed to adequately help the man deal with his mental suffering.

The prison officer was all by himself supervising 10 high-security inmates at the Otago prison in June 2012 when he was badly beaten.

After being treated in hospital, he returned to work nine days later.

According to the ERA decision released last week, there should have been at least two guards with the inmates at the time.

The ERA also found the only support the guard got after returning to work was for his physical injuries.

The man, who can't be identified, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and subsequently took medical retirement.

His lawyer Anne Toohey believes the case sets a precedent for how employers should treat staff suffering psychological damage after an assault.

"I think that employers really, in light of this decision, there's no question they have significant obligations to their staff."

Ms Toohey said the impact the assault had on her client could not be overstated.

"He lost his confidence, he lost his normal way of life. There was an attempted suicide and he's lost his independence.

"So the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder can be much more far-reaching than the assault itself."

Corrections Association Vice President Paul Dennehy said the situation was handled very poorly.

"You've had an officer savagely beaten, at work, in his own residential unit where he works day-in and day-out and there seems to have been no thought given to the impact or the further trauma caused by actually physically being there."

Mr Dennehy hoped the case would serve as a landmark acknowledgement that prison staff did not just risk physical injury at work but severe psychological harm as well.

"We see people who commit the most violent acts on each other and on us. We see people who try to and then, sadly, do kill themselves or commit terrible self-harm and we have to deal with that and manage that.

"You don't really get much training to come across something where someone's cut themselves open and their insides are spilling out."

Clinical psychologist Malcolm Stewart said it was important for employers to remember it was not just soldiers who could suffer from PTSD.

"Often it's less extreme kinds of traumatic events that can lead to a post-traumatic stress disorder. Now we recognise - increasingly - that it is much more ... common stresses that can lead to PTSD."

The prison officer was awarded $30,000 in compensation and more than $26,000 for lost pay.

Corrections would not be interviewed but said in a statement it had recently made significant improvements to keep staff safe. That included better protective gear and the establishment of emergency response teams. It was also doing more mental health awareness training.

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

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Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

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