Monday 10 December 2018

Prison officer awarded €62k claims colleagues 'made her life hell' after return as a breastfeeding mum

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Claire McNeilly

A former Northern Ireland prison officer has revealed how colleagues "made her life hell" as a breastfeeding mother when she returned to work after maternity leave.

Jayne, from the north west, told how she broke down in public, plunged into depression and began self-harming to the point she was afraid she would "kill herself by accident" because of what she was going through at Magilligan Prison near Limavady.

After maternity leave with her second child, the 32-year-old felt she could no longer work in the Co Derry facility's H-block accommodation units due to the lack of hygiene and the preponderance of cigarette smoke and other substances.

But despite an agreement to adjust her duties so that she wasn't required to work in those areas as a breastfeeding mother, her co-workers objected to the new arrangements and she was eventually forced out.

The mum-of-two then sued the Prison Service for sex discrimination, bullying and harassment. This week she was awarded £55,000 (€62,299) in an out-of-court settlement, described by lawyers as "a very substantial payout".

Her solicitor Kevin Gallagher said: "It's a novel case arising from circumstances whereby an employer's decision to accommodate a breastfeeding mother has caused resentment among her colleagues."

In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Jayne (whose real name has been withheld for security reasons) gave a harrowing account of how she was driven to the brink of suicide in what became, for her, a hostile workplace.

"I have the physical scars on my arms and legs from the self-harm that helped me to cope with how I was being treated by certain colleagues," she said.

"I starting cutting myself on my legs and on my forearms when the bullying was going on. I always kept them covered up so no one would notice.

"At the worst times I just kept cutting deeper and deeper. Eventually I went to the doctor and told him I was worried I was going to kill myself by accident."

Jayne's request to be exempted from the H-blocks upon returning to work was solely out of concern for the health of her young son, whom she was still breastfeeding, which also meant she needed to express milk during shifts.

"The H-blocks are vile - there's mice, lice, cigarette smoke and drug smoke in the air and a toilet that's rarely cleaned... I didn't feel it was a healthy environment for a breastfeeding mum to be working in," she said.

"The small room they wanted me to work in is covered in silverfish - little lice-type insects - and you can seem them darting about.

"I've seen mice too. I actually caught a mouse once in one of the wings and I carried it up to the control room. I wasn't a parent at that time.

"I was expressing milk between two and four times a night and they were expecting me to set my breast pump down on a work top in that office.

"They also said I could express in the control room without a curtain over the window - by shouting out to the others not to come near the window when I was expressing."

During her H-blocks exemption, Jayne noticed "quite early" into her return that some staff were "stand-offish", while others blanked her completely when she spoke to them.

She also said there were numerous attempts to pressurise her into work there, and on one occasion "it ended up with me in tears trying once again to defend the right to protect my breastfed child".

In another example, Jayne recalled a conversation with a male colleague who "commented how embarrassing it was having to talk to me about what I do with my breasts".

As the bullying got worse, one staff member approached her "in an agitated and aggressive manner about being fed up with being shafted" when he checked the rota and saw he had been assigned to H-blocks.

Following that incident Jayne said: "I burst into tears, my heart was racing and I couldn't stop shaking. I tried to hold it together but my voice broke and I started crying."

As the situation worsened and her mental wellbeing deteriorated, the distraught young mother finally disclosed that she'd been self-harming.

There followed a public breakdown while she was at church with her three-year-old daughter, after which she was referred to a psychiatric unit and placed under crisis care.

"The tears started tripping me, the floodgates opened and it was really horrible," she recalled. "It all just got too much."

Finally, after "a major anxiety attack", a doctor assessed Jayne's mental health and deemed that she "would not be fit to return to prison work due to the severity of self-harm and depression".

So, rather than fulfilling a promising career in the prison service - 11 years of which she'd already devoted to her job - she ended up being pensioned out in March, aged 32.

"This happened because some people didn't think it was fair that I should get out of working in the H Blocks for a few months to protect my wellbeing and that of my nursing child," she said.

Mr Gallagher said his firm, Millar McCall Wylie, is delighted to have been able to assist Jayne in securing a "substantial settlement in an industrial tribunal context" in this important case.

"We regularly encounter mothers experiencing issues arising from their return to the workplace following maternity leave," he said.

"More common concerns for returning mothers relate to the changing of duties or the impact of maternity leave on career progression. However, the issue of accommodating mothers who continue to breastfeed on return to work has become more prevalent in recent times.

"Although employment legislation protects pregnant women from discrimination in the work place, breastfeeding mothers returning from maternity leave have no specific protection.

"We hope that the claimant's case demonstrates to women in this position that they can claim protection from less favourable treatment and harassment under the Sex Discrimination Order.'

The £55,000 settlement is little more than two years' salary for Jayne. Is it enough for what she's been through?

"It's hard to put a figure on it because at the end of the day this has cost me my career," she said.

"There is breastfeeding legislation in the rest if the UK and it doesn't apply here.

"That's one of the reasons I took this to a tribunal. Settling wasn't an easy decision to make but in the end I did it for my children. It was taking its toll on my mental health and I knew it was the right thing to do."

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