Cut out racist cancer

Superintendent Ali Dizaei, falsely accused of dishonesty by
senior police officers, once referred to the “cancer of racism”
that had taken hold of the Met. It was an apt phrase and one that
might equally well be applied elsewhere in our public services: the
inquiry into the death of Zahid Mubarek in Feltham Young Offender
Institution and the prison inspectorate’s recent report on Portland
YOI both in their different ways provide evidence of racism’s
brutal grip.

We owe the fact that institutional racism in parts of the public
sector is so vigorously debated to Sir William McPherson, whose
inquiry asked awkward questions about the way in which Stephen
Lawrence’s murder had been investigated but did not restrict its
criticisms to the police. Even Lord Scarman, whose report on the
Brixton riots in the early 1980s made such an impact, had not
accused the police of endemic racism. But five years after
McPherson, how much has really changed?

The answer appears to be not much. As an independent inquiry led
by Sir Bill Morris published findings this week of serious
discrimination against black and ethnic minority officers in the
Met, the Mubarek inquiry heard how one prison officer had been
forced to resign because of racial abuse which had gone unchecked
for years. In the year 2000 alone, there were 62 allegedly racist
incidents in Feltham YOI.

It is for the inquiry to judge whether cock-up or conspiracy lay
behind the murder of Mubarek by his cellmate Robert Stewart four
years ago. But one thing is clear: the prison service must begin
rooting out racism in YOIs now rather than wait for the outcome of
the inquiry. As McPherson shows, the pace of reform is slow enough
already. The toll of 93 suicides in prison so far this year is
further testament to the need for a more enlightened regime.

Fortunately there are some hopeful signs. Colin Moses, the chair
of the Prison Officers Association, has signalled his determination
to tackle questionable attitudes among his membership, and the
Commission for Racial Equality has the prison service in its
sights. But the forces ranged against change are considerable. Let
the battle commence.

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