The murder of Zahid Mubarek (picture right) at Feltham young offender institution in 2000 brought the issue of racism in the Prison Service under unprecedented scrutiny. A public inquiry into the case unearthed a culture of racism in prisons, failings in communication between agencies and lack of services for mentally disordered offenders.
Zahid, 19, a first-time offender, was sent to Feltham in January 2000 for theft and interfering with a motor vehicle. He was just two days from release when he was battered to death with a table leg by his cellmate Robert Stewart, then also 19, in March 2000.
Stewart had 18 separate convictions for 71 offences and had served a number of sentences at different custodial establishments. He was transferred from Hindley YOI in Yorkshire to Feltham for court appearances in London in January 2000 and placed in a cell with Mubarek in February.
On 1 November 2000, Stewart was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. A police investigation and an investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality followed the killing.
However, the Mubarek family felt neither investigation answered why their son had been placed in the cell with Stewart and won a public inquiry following a four-year battle with the Home Secretary, that began in 2005.
In June 2006, the report of the public inquiry, chaired by Mr Justice Keith, found a “bewildering catalogue” of both individual and systemic shortcomings at Feltham.
Robert Stewart (pictured right) admitted to the inquiry for the first time that racial prejudice had played a part in his murder of Mubarek.
Judy Clements, a prison race equality advisor said she heard “disturbing” allegations of serious violence against black and ethnic minority prisoners and said prison staff and management were in “complete denial” of issues relating to racism in a number of institutions.
Maqsood Ahmed, a Prison Service advisor, told the inquiry that an Asian prisoner was brutally assaulted by two white inmates at Feltham but staff did not refer him to hospital until 24 hours later, just two months before Mubarek’s death.
(picture: Empics)A report by Hounslow Racial Equality Council given to the inquiry revealed that officers at Feltham routinely called black and Asian inmates “monkeys” and “black bastards” and told “they should be sent back to their own country”.
Allegations that prison officers at Feltham deliberately placed Mubarek and Stewart in the same cell as part of a ‘Gladiator’ game to set black and white inmates against each other were put to the inquiry in a storm of media attention.
Duncan Keys, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, claimed that Mubarek was battered to death by Stewart after they were placed together in a game created for the “perverted pleasure” of prison officers. He named Nigel Herring, the then branch chair of the POA at Feltham as the instigator of the game.
Nigel Herring dismissed the allegations as a “malicious” smear campaign and described them as a “fairy tale.”He said “rumours” of the game had surfaced during a period of “bad feeling” between the Feltham POA and the POA National Executive Committee.
Staff culture and conduct
Sundeep Chahal, a prison officer, admitted that he had had failed to spot a broken table leg which Stewart used to kill Mubarek. He said he had carried out a cell search on the morning of the murder but did not notice the faulty table.
The inquiry heard evidence of low morale, a “desensitised” culture and a number of staff failures to carry out duties at Feltham in the time leading up to and after the murder. There was also evidence of industrial conflicts between the prison officer’s union and the management at Feltham.
Michael Cowan, head of operations at Feltham, said a culture of “defeatism” was rife at Feltham at the time of Mubarek’s death.
David Comber, principal officer in charge of Feltham’s security department, admitted that eight night patrol sheets and locking up reports from the night of Mubarek’s murder had gone missing. Cowan admitted that it was “possible” that officers had allegedly “taken a handful” of the night patrol records to cover up for a missing record from Mubarek’s unit.
Niall Clifford, governor of Feltham at the time of the killing, said that prison officers had “fabricated” prison records, and claimed staff had been “lazy” in failing to record “exactly what was occurring” in the prison.
Treatment of young offenders
The inquiry heard how former director general of the Prison Service Martin Narey felt his attempts to introduce a ‘decency agenda’ at Feltham were thwarted by a negative working culture.
Lucy Bogue, chair of the Independent Monitoring Board described how staff saved lives “on a daily basis” by cutting down boys who were hanging and resuscitating them.
Keith Denman, a principal officer at Feltham said officers acted as though they were working in a “pigsty” with the inmates viewed as “animals”.
The inquiry uncovered a “catastrophic breakdown in communication” between prisons regarding the history of Robert Stewart and the final report named nineteen staff who were judged to have been at fault.
People named included Niall Clifford, governor of Feltham at the time of the killing, and Christopher Kinealy, a psychiatric nurse who met Stewart at Altcourse prison four months before the murder and diagnosed an “untreatable” personality disorder and recommended no further action.
As well as Feltham, other YOIs where Stewart was held were found wanting, including Hindley, Stoke Heath, Onley and Werrington.
The inquiry report made 88 recommendations covering risk assessment of mentally ill prisoners, sharing cells, information-sharing, prison staff training, and the disclosure of psychiatric reports by courts to prisons.
The inquiry in quotes
“Whenever you went into a cell at Feltham you’d see graffiti like swastikas, the initials KKK and things like ‘kill all niggers…’ the general perception in Feltham was that all whites were racist, and the black lads didn’t like the whites.”
Keith Greenslade, a staff officer to the governor at Feltham
“A disaster waiting to happen.”
Michael Potts, a prison officer at Hindley YOI, describing Robert Stewart.
“Zahid told me that he had asked to be moved from his cell. He discussed his cell mate. I asked what he was like. Zahid said that he was alright but later said that he was a bit weird. I asked him what he meant and Zahid said that he was always staring at him. Without saying anything. I recall that he mentioned that the cell mate had RIP on his forehead. We laughed it off.”
Tanzeel Ahmed, Zahid’s cousin, on a visit to Mubarek before he was killed
“The F2052SH phenomena [inmates deemed at risk of self-harm] began to appear with 10 per cent of the landing dribbling for affection, attention and help!”
Nigel Herring, former branch chair of the Prison Officer’s Association at Feltham writing in prison magazine Gatelodge
“When Zahid was killed…it was more than a wake-up call. I think the question was: could we have been so blind?”
Judy Clements, the first race equality adviser to the Prison Service