Sacked South Coast prison guard Norman Collins reinstated after being 'unfairly dismissed'

A decorated South Coast prison officer fired after his “serious error of judgement” allowed a high-risk inmate to escape Corrective Services custody at Shoalhaven Hospital has successfully appealed his sacking.

Maximum security prisoner Harold Brown, a seasoned escapee, was under prison guard awaiting the removal of razor blades from his stomach when he managed to climb out a window while having a shower in a hospital ensuite on the morning of August 22 last year.

He was not wearing wrist and ankle cuffs at the time, as per the direction of the senior prison officer on duty, Norman Collins.

Brown was apprehended at Lake Illawarra after a week on the run. 

Harold Brown

Harold Brown

During a subsequent internal review conducted by Corrective Services, Collins said his decision to remove Brown’s ankle cuffs at the time had been due to his “duty of care” concern that the inmate may have slipped or fallen if he remained cuffed whilst taking a shower.

He said he had checked the bathroom area before Brown entered and believed the window was not capable of being opened.

He admitted to making a number of “monumental errors in judgement” on the day and that he’d been complacent, however said he didn’t consider escape from the bathroom a possibility.

“I felt at the time that I was making a responsible and considered decision,” he said.

“My thoughts at the time were more related to the health and wellbeing of inmate Brown.”

However, Corrective Services ultimately fired Collins in March this year, finding his conduct in allowing the removal of the cuffs had violated their policies and procedures enough to warrant his sacking.

Collins successfully appealed the decision to the Industrial Relations Commission, resulting in his immediate reinstatement.

In handing down his decision, Commissioner John Murphy ruled the escape had not been as a result of an intentional policy breach or any act of dishonesty on Collins’ behalf.

He also found there was no Corrective Services policy specifically dealing with the issue of an inmate having a shower.​

“In these circumstances the applicant cannot be found to have been in breach of a non-existent procedure,” Commissioner Murphy said.

“However that is not the end of the matter; the applicant’s inspection of the bathroom was clearly inadequate.

“It should have been apparent to him that the bathroom window was a potential escape point and he should not have permitted to removal of the inmate’s restraints to allow him to have a shower without ensuring that he was kept under very close and direct observation at all times.”

Comissioner Murphy said there was no doubt Collins had been “negligent and complacent” in his duty.

“His failings…constitute monumental errors of judgement on his part which had extremely serious and potentially catastrophic consequences,” he said.

“These errors of judgement were sufficiently serious so as to constitute misconduct by him necessitating significant disciplinary action.

“However, in my opinion, the applicant misconduct was not of sufficient seriousness to warrant the ending of his 22 year career as a correctional officer.

“I find that the dismissal of the applicant was harsh, unreasonable and unjust.”

Commissioner Murphy ordered that Collins be reinstated to his pre-dismissal position, however declined to award any back pay.