A young Asian woman approached me, several years ago, on behalf
of her brother who was serving a life sentence for murder. He had
always maintained his innocence and the evidence did appear highly
A little later, when we were organising our first prison visit, she
told me that her brother had told her to not to pursue his case.
The reason, she said, was that he was already being subjected to
racist abuse from prison officers and inmates alike. A request for
a transfer to another prison had been refused. He feared that
visits from solicitors, journalists and campaigners would only draw
attention to him and trigger further assaults.
We are now witnessing the first independent, public judicial
inquiry into a racist killing in the prison system. Zahid Mubarek,
19, was bludgeoned to death by his racist cellmate, Robert Stewart,
in Feltham young offender institution more than four years
The inquiry, which is expected to last four months, has already
revealed that there were 14 missed opportunities to avert Mubarek’s
death. One hopes that the inquiry will (yet again) expose to public
view the racism in the justice system and subject the lack of
adequate provision for the mentally disordered to
Mubarek’s life and death may also focus attention on a related
issue. He was only hours away from being released after serving
three months for theft. The Howard League for Penal Reform is now
embarked on a two-year project intended to discover how 18 to
20-year-old men in prison can be better supported when they emerge
from the extreme disruption of serving a short sentence.
The aim is to consult with the young offenders themselves to gauge
best how they can be helped. One obvious step would be to avoid
sending them to prison in the first place, as Community Care’s
recent Back on Track campaign argued.
Most short-term offenders have little access to education, training
or offending behaviour courses. Instead, boredom feeds violence and
prejudice flourishes in a culture of fear.
Listening to young men doesn’t appear that revolutionary an idea.
Yet, it patently didn’t happen in the case of Mubarek – or he would
be alive today. Listening to young men – and then ensuring that
something constructive and enduring is built from their comments –
might just provide some kind of restitution for Mubarek’s pointless
and inexcusable death.