One of the prison guards at the centre of The Courier's award-winning investigation into the culture of bullying and harassment in two of Corrections Victoria's regional prisons has received a landmark settlement over the alleged mistreatment she suffered during her employment.
Rowena Worth has received over $700,000 plus ongoing medical expenses after a WorkSafe claim for psychiatric injury was settled prior to a court hearing scheduled for July this year. Ms Worth alleged her injury was caused by the negligence of her employer, the Department of Justice and Regulation (now the Department of Justice and Community Safety) during her employment at Langi Kal Kal prison
WorkSafe Victoria denied Ms Worth's application for a serious injury certificate, leading to County Court proceedings and settlement prior to litigation.
She says the settlement is a vindication of her decision to fight the both department and the behaviour of her superiors in Corrections Victoria, hoping it will lead to similar outcomes for her colleagues who made complaints about their treatment and culture in the prisons.
THE ORIGINAL STORIES:
- Corrections Victoria's toxic culture near Ballarat: staff speak out
- Corrections Victoria's prison culture: 'Alice' made the mistake of reporting a colleague affected by alcohol
- Corrections Victoria's prison culture: Former officer suffered PTSD following Metropolitan Remand Centre riots
- Corrections Victoria's prison culture: Verbal abuse in front of fellow staff common, says Stuart Thomas
- Corrections Victoria's toxic culture: Senior staff inspect Langi Kal Kal
- Corrections Victoria's prison culture: a system in crisis
- On notice: Department of Justice investigated by WorkSafe Victoria
- Commissioners to leave Corrections Victoria as department is restructured
Ms Worth joined Corrections Victoria in 2014 as a prison officer, and was quickly recognised as a potential leader.The tertiary qualifications she gained in Correctional Practice, Criminology (Sexual Offender Management) and Business set her apart as someone supremely intellectually suitable for her role.
After being accepted into a supervisory development program four months after her employment, she alleges two senior prison officers at Langi Kal Kal, began to bully and belittle her.
"I was routinely treated unprofessionally and with malice in my workplace by these two officers," Ms Worth wrote in a letter of complaint to MP Gayle Tierney, then minister for corrections, in 2018.
"My work was routinely destroyed, sabotaged, removed from files and noticeboards, and I was continually criticised and ridiculed. I was deliberately set up to fail repeatedly, information was withheld from me, information that was needed for me to do my job safely... I was 'backstabbed' relentlessly, to my colleagues, senior officers and management."
The alleged bullying went on for almost three years, and despite her detailed complaints, she says the situation was never escalated satisfactorily.
In her affidavit to the County Court, Ms Worth described the effect of the treatment she allegedly received as sending her 'to spiral into a very dark place.'
"I felt threatened and alone," Ms Worth wrote.
"The negative thoughts became so invasive that I even contemplated taking my own life... I live my life scared. I perceive danger both literally and figuratively around every corner. I am scared I will run into people I know from work and I will be screamed at or even lunged at."
Ms Worth now suffers from panic attacks and has withdrawn from her social life, she says, rarely leaving her home. Once a keen and highly-rated body sculptor, she says she has lost all motivation to train. She has lost contact with friends and her family relationships have suffered.
Ms Worth's complaints and reports about her alleged treatment were not treated confidentially as they were meant to be, she says, but rather shared among those she accused of mistreating her and their supporters - a practice common to the story of each former prison officerThe Courier spoke to in 2019.
Naomi Riggs of Rubicon Legal said Ms Worth's initial complaint had been ignored and it was only her determined persistence in pushing for a response from Corrections Victoria which saw her granted an unprecedented, without prejudice, face-to-face interview with the now Assistant Commissioner, Custodial Services, Andrew Reaper and Kate Osborne, the regional HR manager for Corrections Victoria. Mr Reaper was not in the role at the time of Ms Worth's complaints.
"The answers they were giving in that interview would have completely assisted in a negligence claim," Ms Riggs says.
"They were not trying to shy away from responsibility. I was pleasantly surprised at what an open dialogue it was and how respectful Andrew and Kate were."
Rowena Worth is precisely spoken, has almost clinical recall of events and her confidence belies the emotional trauma and upheaval she has been subjected to.
She says bringing Corrections Victoria to the point of acknowledgement was an essential step for her, not only for herself but for others, because the issues were systemic.
"I finally felt validated," Rowena Worth says.
"They (Reaper and Osborne) really listened. Andrew Reaper really listened to what I had to say. He was not surprised by some of the things that I was saying, and sometimes the opposite was true.
"It was cathartic. I had gone through two-and-a-half-years... in the workplace, made many, many complaints, both verbal and written, and I had never been taken seriously or even heard or acknowledged. It was more than two years before this meeting, so it had gone on for well over four-and-a-half years."
"It's hard for me to say: Corrections Victoria were definitely wrong, and leave it at that. What happened to me was wrong, but the systems and processes they had in place were ineffective. All levels of the department knew that, and allowed it, particularly at the local and regional level, because it served to protect them and continue the behaviour.
"I had a responsibility to do something about this... I had the skills and abilities to deal with these situations others had gone through and are still going through, to get them to see that the issues were right across the organisation. It had to stop; people were being seriously harmed.
"In terms of the compensation: yes it tells me they were wrong. They didn't give me the duty of care that was owed. Hopefully it means by paying that money to me they will take a harder line with what has been and is going on, and force change."
Naomi Riggs says the ramifications of the settlement are twofold.
"When an employer has to pay a significant amount of money like this, it's a warning to say 'let's change our systems, to avoid having to do this again, because that's not good.'
"It's even more so in Rowena's situation, because before we go to the meeting with Andrew and Kate, they had read Rowena's complaint and understood her concerns, and I'm not sure that had happened before. They were being brushed off, and nothing was done.
"So they're only paying that large amount of money in order to avoid playing a larger amount of money in a negligence payment, and then you have management finally reading Rowena's concerns, listening to her and talking to her about them. So I think the reporting systems, at least under Andrew Reaper's control, will likely change, so that if somebody is being bullied, they have someone to listen to them."
Ms Riggs is surprised the department and Corrections Victoria have opted for transparency in the case.
"I have sued the state of Victoria more than I can count and I have never had a situation where they have sat down and acknowledged failures in their system and then told us the steps that they're taking to correct them," she says.
"It's never happened. And I've got copies of documents where Rowena is making numerous complaints, and they just been brushed off. They say they received the complaint, they acknowledge the complaint, but they never read it.
"They say, 'this isn't our department, we've given it to (department) XYZ and told the department to respond'. I'm unsure as to why the state of Victoria responded the way that it did. But it's had a very beneficial impact on Rowena.
"And I think it's a real positive outcome of this kind of process that I'd like to see taken in other claims: let's be less litigious and more understanding... and try and reach a resolution and that was halting change. And, you know, it may not be may not play out that way.
"But to this point, steps have been taken which seemed genuine and Rowena does, to my understanding appear to have been listened to. And I think that the reason that she wasn't is reflective of her very complaint she was being bullied... And when she made a complaint, which is ironic, it had to be to the persons who were the subject of the complaint."
Rowena Worth says despite her settlement, change is still needed at Corrections Victoria, in the workplace and the culture.
"What continues to astound me is despite the damage and psychological injury others' actions and behaviour had on me and on other people.Those people are still at work and are yet to receive any consequences or face any accountability for their actions whatsoever.
"It's also worth mentioning these people were not required to be present or participate in the Brodie's Law presentation at Langi Kal Kal earlier this year, In fact both of them were absent. Surely these officers should have been the very people that were required to be in attendance."
In response to questions from The Courier, a spokesperson from the Department of Justice and Community Safety issued this statement.
"The Department of Justice and Community Safety is committed to providing a working environment that is respectful and safe for all its employees.
Many changes have been made since 2017, such as improving complaints processes, the introduction of mental health first aid officers and counselling support for prison officers.
"The department does not comment on matters involving individual staff."
The Courier understands the department has made changes focused on workplace practices and culture, strengthening leadership, training and complaint processes.
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