Imitaz Amin, the uncle of Zahid Mubarek, tells Maria Ahmed about his fight for a public inquiry and how the prison system needs reform
As the Mubarek report’s criticisms are absorbed by the prison service, and chief inspector Anne Owers continues to draw attention to shortcomings in prisons, we examine:
The fight for an inquiry into the murder of Zahid Mubarek.
It is six years since Zahid Mubarek was battered to death by his cellmate Robert Stewart at Feltham Young Offender Institution. Now, following the final report of the public inquiry into the murder, Imitaz Amin is determined to keep his nephew Zahid’s name alive by bringing about change in the prison system.
The inquiry, which was granted after a four-year battle led by Amin with the home secretary, unearthed 186 failings to prevent the murder of 19-year-old Zahid by Stewart, also 19, in 2000. Amin, who works for anti-racist charity the Monitoring Group, warns that unless all 88 of the inquiry’s recommendations are taken on board more murders such as Zahid’s will happen. He is pressing home secretary John Reid to take action, questioning why he has only accepted 50 recommendations so far and set aside 38 for consideration.
“All the recommendations need to be taken on to prevent even one failing from happening again – there should be no excuses down the line,” he argues.
Amin says one recommendation -Êan end to enforced cell-sharing -Êmust be a priority. “The inquiry asked why a racist with RIP tattooed on his forehead and a history of racial harassment was allowed to share a cell with Zahid,” he says. “The staff who blatantly missed warning signs of Stewart’s dangerousness and placed him in the cell were not fit for their jobs.”
Amin says some of the failures to prevent the tragedy were “down to the simplest things” such as the lack of monitoring of Stewart’s correspondence. Stewart wrote more than 200 letters in the run-up to the murder, many of which contained racist abuse. They included one where he wrote about donning a white sheet like the Ku Klux Klan and killing his cellmate.
“If staff had intercepted the letters it could have saved Zahid’s life,” Amin says. “Stewart wrote that he wanted the men who killed Stephen Lawrence to be in Feltham with him, and that he would bomb the Asian community. He was very disturbed but, incredibly, no one at Feltham saw it.”
Amin questions how far the failings of 20 staff named in the report were down to problems in the prison system. “While you have to ask whether their failings were part of a culture where they simply had to fit in, I believe it was ultimately down to sheer laziness,” he says.
Amin’s lawyers are looking at taking action against staff as none have been disciplined, including five still at Feltham. “There is a need for reprimand,” Amin says, “as the prison service is refusing to acknowledge this, the onus is on us.”
He urges the government to be bold about making changes and raises concerns that Feltham has still not met “even a basic standard” of care towards young prisoners.
“There have been some improvements but there are still problems with the high use of restraint and control, and bullying. Care for the mentally ill is a sham,” he says.
He also says race relations remain low on the agenda throughout the prison service, leaving many foreign nationals and British Muslims feeling unsafe.
Amin welcomes the recommendation for the Home Office to recognise a concept of institutional religious intolerance – in view of Islamophobia in prisons since 9/11 and 7/7. The inquiry also recommended a review of mental health care for prisoners. As part of this, Amin wants to see better ways found for dealing with people like Stewart, who was diagnosed as having a personality disorder but was deemed untreatable.
“The prison service needs to ask what should be done with these people,” he says.
Amin suggests the creation of specific units for prisoners with mental illness, properly trained staff and rehabilitation programmes. The government needs to put up whatever resources are needed, Amin argues: “You can’t put a value on human life -Êespecially for the young and vulnerable.”
As the prison population hits a record high, Amin believes that building more prisons is not the answer. Instead, the government must stop introducing more punitive laws: “They talk about reducing the prison population, but also about wanting to lock up more people and they introduce policies like antisocial behaviour orders.”
Amin also points to the need to examine how changes in sentencing could bring down the prison population. “It was disheartening that prison was the only option for someone like Zahid who had stolen £6 worth of goods from a supermarket. The inquiry felt sentencing would have been too vast a topic to include in its remit, but it needs to be looked at,” he says.
Amin hopes to take the work of the inquiry forward through a trust he is setting up. As part of the trust’s work, he wants to start a helpline for prisoners. “I want it to be totally independent so that prison staff cannot tap into it. This will encourage greater willingness from prisoners and create a more transparent system,” Amin says.
The trust will also gather support for the families of other children who have died in custody. Amin supports the call for a public inquiry into the case of 16-year-old Joseph Scholes, who committed suicide at Stoke Heath YOI in 2002. After a refusal by the home secretary last year, the case is being appealed this month.
“I firmly believe that one death in custody is one too many,” Amin says.
He sees Zahid’s inquiry as part of a movement for change that was gathering pace before the murder. He says the case of Christopher Edwards, killed by his mentally ill cellmate Richard Linford at Chelmsford prison in 1994, “provided a springboard” for pushing the case for Zahid’s inquiry. While the government has refused to hold a public inquiry into Edwards’ case, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2002 that Edwards had been denied his right to life as a result of the “systematic failure” of the public agencies involved.
“This case paved the way for us to go to the Lords after the home secretary’s refusal to hold a public inquiry into Zahid’s death and have the decision overturned,” Amin says. He says his anger at injustices faced by other families including Edwards’ drove him throughout his struggle for an inquiry.
“It just so happens that we were granted the public inquiry but many other families had tried before us,” he says. “Now, our public inquiry should not just lead to justice for Zahid but for others as well.”
He is adamant the inquiry “will not be a pointless, wasted exercise” although he has concerns about how far the lessons will be heeded. He is highly frustrated at the prison service’s “well-oiled” PR machine. “Every time they are required to make any kind of change, they dupe people into believing they have done something, despite evidence to show they have not taken past recommendations on board.
“A private inquiry into the Christopher Edwards case made recommendations, but many have not been implemented. I want Zahid’s inquiry to get results.”
Amin pledges to call for a more humane prison system, in the face of difficult times for his community: “I need to make the most of Zahid’s inquiry or I will feel unfaithful to the society I live in as a British Muslim.”