Warders at women's jail 'were made scapegoats'

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The Independent Online

A group of lesbian prison officers who were transferred out of Holloway after allegations that they ruled staff through sexual harassment and intimidation claimed yesterday they had been made scapegoats for a failing jail.

A group of lesbian prison officers who were transferred out of Holloway after allegations that they ruled staff through sexual harassment and intimidation claimed yesterday they had been made scapegoats for a failing jail.

The group, called the Magnificent Seven, along with two other female officers also transferred, began a claim of sexual discrimination against the Prison Service at an industrial tribunal. The women deny they were sexual predators, and are seeking hundreds of thousands of pounds in damages.

The group was dispersed to prisons across the country in March 2002 after a five-month inquiry uncovered bullying and intimidation. Martin Narey, then director general of the Prison Service, said: "There is clear evidence of sexual harassment, the sort of behaviour which we wouldn't dream of tolerating between men and women. I'm not tolerating it between women and women."

The tribunal heard that three quarters of the predominantly female staff at the notorious women's prison at the time believed it had a problem with bullying, while almost half had been victimised themselves.

Yesterday one of the seven, who cannot be named for legal reasons, began her evidence before the central London tribunal. The 32-year-old, who faced allegations from 38 of the 149 people interviewed, said: "I was set up from day one.In my opinion Holloway was a failing jail and we were made scapegoats."

The woman, now a senior officer at another prison, denied she was the "officer from hell", a racist, "nasty" sexual predator or a woman who referred to female recruits as "fresh candy in the sweet shop". Denying that she treated men with contempt, she said: "I have never hidden my sexuality, but I have never flaunted it either."

She also countered any claims that she was part of a "clique", made inappropriate comments, had repeatedly humiliated female colleagues or pressurised them to change their sexuality.

"In no way was I trying to run HMP Holloway for my own benefit," she insisted. She continued: "Some staff have stated that they felt intimidated by me, and have given no further explanation ... Many staff have either lied or distorted their account of an incident."

Describing the events of 11 October 2001, the day she and six colleagues were told they were being temporarily transferred from Holloway, she said she had felt humiliated. She was escorted to the office of the then governor, David Lancaster,where she was given a letter informing her that she was being transferred to a male prison. She was marched "like a prisoner" to collect her belongings and then to the gate.

"I could not comprehend what was happening to me and I could not stop crying and shaking. I was completely devastated," she continued.

She said she felt extremely daunted when just four days later, she began work on the lifers wing of the male prison and was signed off for almost a month by her GP because of lack of sleep and depression.

On 4 March 2002 the seven, along with two other female complainants, were notified that they were being permanently transferred.