A group of prison officers who used a Facebook site to harass, bully and make s-xist comments about fellow Corrective Services employees have been offered support by an Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) judge. In a heated IRC hearing, Judge Marks ordered Corrective Services NSW to reinstate two of the officers, who had been sacked, and accused the prison authorities of dragging out the case.

It is the latest twist in the case of the so-called “Facebook 6” — a group of NSW prison officers who claim they have been “denied their freedom of speech”  by using a Facebook site to criticise NSW prisons Commissioner Ron Woodham. The order by Judge Marks is a victory for the prison officers’ union, the Public Service Association (PSA), but it may be a casualty for the truth.

Crikey can reveal for the first time that the prison officers, who have been elevated to martyr status with their heroic group nickname, used the Facebook site to bully staff.

I should know — I am one of their victims.

For the last two years, every time this case has been dragged through the IRC, the officers’ union has managed to get sympathetic media coverage by convincing journalists that the “human rights” of these “poor” officers have been violated. All the officers did, the Public Service Association (PSA) has continued to insist, is a little harmless bagging of  the boss, Woodham, during a union campaign against the privatisation of jails.

Each story has faithfully reported that the Facebook group called “Suggestions to help Big RON save a few clams” criticised state government plans to privatise NSW prisons and suggested other ways that NSW Corrective Services Commissioner Ron Woodham could save money.

That is true, but that’s not all they did. They threatened violence upon a (male) Corrective Services staffer, made insults against other staff and they threatened me. They called me names, bullied me, they made personal comments about my appearance.

They called me a “whale”, a “grub”, and “putrid” and said that I was badly groomed, dirty and dressed like a vagrant. They suggested I should be sacked and that the next time I visited Goulburn prison (a union stronghold) in the course of my work they would given me a “welcome”.

I took that as a threat. And I’ve never met any of them.

In the union’s eyes — and now in the eyes of an Industrial Relations Commission judge — these people are men of courage who deserve a fair go. PSA spokesman, Stewart Little, said after the latest hearing that Corrective Services was “ruthless” and on a “vendetta” against the officers.

If the PSA’s female members were being so harassed and threatened would Stewart Little support the harassers?

I worked for Commissioner Ron Woodham for almost six years as his media adviser. During that time, the PSA and its subsidiary, the Prison Officers Vocational Board, campaigned heavily against NSW Government proposals to privatise Cessnock and Parklea jails.

The plan was introduced by Attorney General John Hatzistergos, when he was also Justice Minister in charge of prisons. Hatzistergos had learned of the overtime system in operation in NSW jails, by which a favoured few would earn up to double their pay by monopolising overtime shifts.

Prison officers were ordered by union representatives to take as many sick days as possible to optimise the opportunity for officers to earn overtime pay. Certain jobs were highly favoured, such as desk jobs in court cell complexes and minding the prison wings when inmates were out in the yard.

When Corrective Services introduced work reform measures to expunge rorts from the system and to allow private operators to run prisons, making dramatic reductions on overtime shifts, the union went to war.

It was the usual fair and balanced union campaign: a union official threatened that if a private company took over Cessnock, any officer who went to work for  the jail would be harassed, spat on and taunted as they came through the gate.

At union rallies, the speakers cited anecdotes of what happens in privatised jails . . . escalating rates of murders, attacks on officers, escapes and general violence. Never mind that Junee jail, in country NSW, had been run for two decades by (private company) GEO with one of the cleanest records for prison incidents in the state.

Soon, union members were ringing any journalist gullible enough to run a story.

After private security guards took over the manning of the boom gate, the union claimed that an inmate had escaped through the gate. It wasn’t true, but it ran on the Channel 7 news for several nights.

Commissioner Woodham was forced to hold a media conference and show footage of the boom gate and show journalists the fence over which the escapee, Alex Mihail, had really escaped.

Any incident was a major security breach: under the watch of a Long Bay overseer, an inmate was allowed to carry the TV of a fellow inmate who was being released on parole. The overseer allowed the inmate to carry the television to the parolee’s waiting car.

The story was leaked: major security breach! Again, Commissioner Woodham was forced to prove that it wasn’t.

The Facebook 6 started their site after Woodham launched the new work reforms in August 2008. They made thousands of entries, insulting the commissioner and his deputy and assistant commissioners with personal comments and suggestions about the fidelity of one or another.

They started on me after I attended one of their rallies, at the behest of the Commissioner, and (quite openly) photographed it.

The messages began. Two officers were involved in the conversation. December 24, 2008:

7.16 a.m: “What a disgraceful letter by that weasel Sutton from Big Boy’s tower . . . I only hope you make a visit to G-town, where the Goulburn Massive will make you welcome. In face you reminded me of one of those homeless people . . . a very strong look alike, you could have at least put on some decent clothing, maybe even had a shower! You are a f-cking disgrace.”

3.18pm: “Who the f-ck is Candice (sic) Sutton, supposedly a media officer for Big Ron . . . Well I’ll tell you Candy, never listen to a half-wit, because what happens is you become a fullwit . . . stop telling f-cking lies . . . go and get a real f-cking job”

3.29pm: “Go and tell Candy . . . I’ll put her on f-cking notice.”

8.56pm:  “To that Mutt who was at the rally today . . . Candice (sic) you proved today what a worthless putrid oxygen thief you are. I long for the day when you and your type are squeezed like the festering boil you are and booted from the public service. You f-cking parasite!”

8.59pm: “Get a f-cking haircut. You looked like one of the great unwashed. You wouldn’t have been out of place throwing yourself in front of Japanese whaler harpoons. Come to think of it that’s probably where you belong. Grub.”

Stewart Little of the PSA describes the Facebook comments as “the same as people talking in the pub letting off steam”. Commissioner Woodham has never come forward with the underlying facts of the Facebook case and now Judge Marks seems impatient to be rid of the case.

The PSA has dragged out the case by rejecting, on a technicality, the recommendations each time Corrective Services NSW appoints an independent  investigator —  so far, former assistant commissioner of NSW Police Chris Evans and former NSW Police commissioner Ken Moroney.

Marks has complained that Corrective Services NSW has not followed proper procedure and it appears two of  the sacked officers will be returning to work (other members of the group have been demoted or they have resigned).

In any private organisation these type of s-xist bullies would have been marched smartly out the door. In the public system, it would appear, they are lionised.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey