Prison officer accused of assault awarded compensation

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A Rimutaka prison guard who was sacked after allegations were made that he beat up a prisoner following racist remarks has been reinstated by the Wellington Employment Court.

After an incident in July 2011, Willie Alatipi was dismissed as a corrections officer following allegations from a prisoner that he had been assaulted in his cell.

Alapiti appealed to the Employment Court after his unfair dismissal complaint to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) was unsuccessful.

Judge Tony Ford reinstated Alatipi and ordered $20,000 to be paid to him for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.

He also awarded Alatipi three months’ ordinary time remuneration and costs.

“I see no contributory conduct on Mr Alatipi's part which would warrant a reduction in the remedies awarded,” Ford said.

Giving evidence, Alapiti told the court he had been working in the remand unit on the morning of the alleged assault.

During this time, a prisoner had approached him and asked to make a phone call. Alapiti claimed that he refused as his manager had told him that phone calls were restricted on that day.

According to Alapiti’s evidence, the prisoner grew angry and Alapiti told him to calm down. The prisoner responded to this by telling Alapiti – who is Samoan – to “f*** off, you coconut”.

Alatipi claimed that he took the prisoner in question back to his cell and gave him “a talking to”.

After the prisoner’s complaint, the incident was investigated by both Corrections and Police. The police laid no charges but Corrections decided that the allegations were true, and Alatipi was subsequently dismissed.

However, Judge Ford criticised the manner in which the Corrections investigation was handled, arguing that the officer appeared to passively accept everything that the prisoner told her about the alleged assault.

“The investigator seems to have accepted Prisoner X's statements and chameleon-like demeanour without question,” Ford said.

He added that there was little evidence that the Corrections decision-maker in the case had independently sought to question or challenge any aspects of the investigation.

“On any objective assessment of the facts Corrections did not have a sufficient and reliable evidential basis for concluding that Mr Alatipi had assaulted [the prisoner],” he said. 

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