Bisexual prison officer branded ‘vermin’ by colleagues wins unfair dismissal case

Employee suffered ‘campaign of direct discrimination’ before losing his job due to his complaints, tribunal finds

A bisexual prison officer who suffered a “campaign of direct discrimination and harassment” was unfairly dismissed, a tribunal has ruled.

The Cambridge Employment Tribunal heard that Ben Plaistow, who worked at HMP Woodhill in Milton Keynes from 2014 until his dismissal in August 2016, had been slapped, squirted with water, had his bag coloured pink and had fingernails dug into his face by colleagues over the course of a number of months.

Employment Judge Ord ruled that Plaistow was victimised for raising concerns about his treatment and was unfairly dismissed because of his complaints rather than any alleged misconduct.

The ET heard Plaistow had been victimised for what his colleagues assumed was his sexuality early on in his employment, however this intensified after a meeting with his supervisor, custodial manager Victoria Laithwaite, in which Plaistow was asked about and disclosed his sexual orientation.

After this discussion, the abuse intensified. Officers remarked on his “wearing a tie in the summer, how his boots were well polished, his shirt ironed and always tucked in and why he wore aftershave while working in a male prison”, the tribunal heard.

His colleagues also regularly called the 40-year-old ‘gay’, ‘poof’ and ‘vermin’.

As a result, Plaistow stopped dying his hair black and styled it differently, and also stopped having his eyelashes tinted. 

The ET heard that in late 2014, Plaistow was joined in the restroom by a number of fellow officers – PO Puttock, PO Laithwaite and another unidentified officer – and was told by Laithwaite if he made any reports or allegations about the conduct of other officers, they would submit false reports about Plaistow alleging errors at work and corruption to ensure he lost his job or was imprisoned.

In July 2015, Laithwaite grabbed Plaistow’s arm, causing bruising, and told him he was causing “too many problems” by complaining about his treatment at Woodhill, the tribunal heard. That month also saw his work bag coloured pink. 

In August, another officer, PO Haige, was said to have squirted a bottle of water at Plaistow, and in September she pushed him from behind into a desk. In December, Haige screamed at Plaistow and grabbed and dug her fingernails into his face. A pink fairy cake was also smeared inside his bag, the tribunal was told.

Plaistow raised an internal grievance in October 2015, but it was not investigated. He also raised two further grievances, one in October 2015 to his constituency MP Andrea Leadsom, and one in March 2016 to the HR director and chief executive of the National Offenders Management Service.

On 7 December 2015, a complaint was made that Plaistow had assaulted a prisoner, and after an investigation he was dismissed for gross misconduct on 9 August 2016.

However, the judge said the investigation was “no more than perfunctory” and Plaistow was dismissed because of his complaints into his treatment.

Judge Ord said: “The claimant suffered a campaign of direct discrimination and harassment on the basis of his sexuality or perceived sexuality throughout his period of employment at Woodhill. He was subjected to detriment for having made protected disclosures and victimised having made protected acts. He was unfairly dismissed and his dismissal was an act of victimisation.” 

The respondent, the Secretary of State for Justice, denied all claims.

Joseph Nicholls, partner at Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors, said the case was one of the “most shocking” judgments of institutional harassment and discrimination he had ever came across.

“The tribunal provides a stark warning to employers to take complaints seriously, investigate them thoroughly and impartially without prejudging,” he said. “This is an extreme example, but an example nevertheless of how not to respond to grievances or disclosures raised by your staff and how to completely disregard the duty of care owed to an employee.” 

A remedy hearing is yet to take place.

The Ministry of Justice has been contacted for comment.