The former boss of an open prison is now suing the service over claims she was discriminated against because she is a lesbian.
Sharon Jefcut, then Sharon Williams, was the governor of HMP Ford in West Sussex when around 40 inmates went on a drunken New Year’s Day rampage in 2011, causing around £5million of damage.
The inmates had been bingeing on smuggled champagne, brandy, whisky and vodka at the Category D prison before the ‘unprecedented’ riot which saw it set on fire.
It emerged shortly afterwards that Sharon Jefcut had split with her husband and was in a relationship with prison officer Jackie Jefcut.
Ms Jefcut is suing the prison service for disability discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination and victimisation, which she says occurred from 2013 until she took ill health retirement in June 2018.
There is however no suggestion the riot had any bearing on Ms Jefcut’s alleged treatment.
At an employment tribunal in London yesterday a panel of judges refused the prison service’s application to strike out Ms Jefcut’s case, but said it had a “low chance of success”.
The tribunal heard Ms Jefcut’s claims have technically been made out of time – although a judge can agree to extend the time limits to still consider them.
The panel ruled Ms Jefcut will need to pay a deposit if she wishes to proceed with the case – but it could make her liable to pay the prison service’s legal costs if she loses.
Giving evidence, Ms Jefcut told the tribunal: “I do acknowledge that some of the issues I raise go back a considerable time but they have been prevailing all the way through those four years.
“It’s been a continual build of comments and things that have been said and I believe that’s impacted on how I have been treated throughout that period of time.
“Up until the point I left the service and afterwards, there were a number of outstanding issues at the time of my leaving.
“In terms of my ability to bring anything to the court, it was limited in terms of my mental health and how I was emotionally and mentally able to present anything or even see what was happening to me.
“I was unaware of what was happening around me a lot of the time, feelings of upset, fear, just wanting to keep my head down and carry on. I was looking for support and wanting to stay at work and feel safe at that job.”
Alex Line, representing the prison service, said: “The claims in broad terms relate to disability discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination and there’s also a victimisation claim. An unfair dismissal claim was withdrawn.
“Ms Jefcut contacted ACAS in September 2019, so it is the respondent’s submission that your only view can be these are allegations are out of time by a considerable margin, bearing in mind the three-month time limit.”
It was said that most of the claims relate to emails sent by a manager called Steven O’Connell in April 2016, which Ms Jefcut discovered in September 2018 through a subject access request.
A subject access request allows a person to be given personal information about themselves held by an organisation.
Ms Jefcut added: “Mr O’Connell held the belief that I was going to take the service to court on the grounds of my sexual orientation and comments that he made up to the highest level of the service.
“I believe this impacted on the way I was treated and managed and to the fact that I was really quite unwell and it was perceived that I was difficult to manage.”
Employment judge Emma Burns said: “We feel unable to make a finding that the claim has no reasonable prospect of success.
“All the allegations are significantly out of time but when allegations are made of disability discrimination we do have the power to extend time on a just and equitable basis.
“We don’t feel confident there are no prospects of success, however we do feel confident there is a weak prospect of success.
“We are not saying that you can’t proceed, we are just saying if you proceed we don’t think you will win but it’s your choice. What we urge you to do is to go get some independent legal advice.”
The full hearing was adjourned to allow Ms Jefcut to pay the deposit of a confidential sum.