Prison murder inquiry slams individual and systemic failings

While Zahid Mubarek’s family want to see individuals brought to account for failures that led to his murder, others believe that the prison service itself should face charges. Maria Ahmed reports

The damning report into the murder of Zahid Mubarek has prompted calls for the prison service and its staff to be made more accountable when people die in custody.

The report into how Zahid, 19, was killed by his racist cellmate Robert Stewart, also 19, at Feltham Young Offender Institution in 2000, took the unusual step of naming and criticising 20 prison staff for failing to take action to prevent the murder.

Following the report’s publication, inquiry chair Justice Keith said it was “very important” to publicly name individuals to make the report transparent. He told Community Care he hoped the inquiry would influence the way deaths in custody were examined in the future.

Niall Clifford, governor of Feltham at the time of the killing and the most senior person named, was criticised for failing to improve living conditions for prisoners.

Christopher Kinealy, registered mental health nurse at Altcourse prison, where Stewart was held before Feltham, was also named.

Four months before the murder, Kinealy found Stewart had a “long-standing and deep-seated personality disorder”. But he recommended no further action and concluded that Stewart was not a risk to others.

Feltham prison officer Sundeep Chahal was criticised for failing to spot a loose table leg in the cell shared by Zahid and Stewart that was later used by Stewart to batter Zahid to death.

While Keith’s report named individuals – many of whom acted as witnesses to the inquiry – he said their failings had to be seen in the context of a “failing and under-resourced” prison system.

Zahid’s family are angry that no action has been taken against individuals. Zahid’s uncle, Imitaz Amin, who led a four-year battle against the government to win the public inquiry, calls his nephew’s killing “institutional murder”.

Imran Khan, the family’s solicitor, says they were “shocked” that some individuals, including Niall Clifford, were promoted within the prison service after the murder. “The family will look at what action will be taken if nothing is done by those in power.”

Martin Narey, director general of the prison service at the time of Zahid’s murder, told the inquiry he had considered resigning following the incident, but was persuaded not to by the then home secretary David Blunkett.

No other offers of resignation have come to light so far.

The prison service has confirmed that 15 of the staff named in Keith’s report are still working in the organisation – including five still at Feltham – and have not faced any disciplinary proceedings.

A spokesperson says the service cannot confirm the whereabouts of all the remaining staff named but says Niall Clifford retired in January.

She adds: “There was an undertaking between the prison service and the inquiry that evidence given by staff to the inquiry would not be used as grounds for disciplinary proceedings.”

But Lord David Ramsbotham, chief inspector of prisons at the time of Zahid’s murder, supports the family’s call. “Unless the prison service makes people responsible and accountable then change won’t happen,” he says.

During the inquiry, it was revealed that police had considered bringing corporate manslaughter charges against the prison service, but the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence.

Concerns about the prison service’s accountability were highlighted earlier this year over government plans to exempt deaths in prison custody from liability under proposed reforms to the law on corporate manslaughter.

The government argues that organisational failings relating to deaths in custody are already sufficiently investigated through public inquests.

But Enver Solomon, deputy director of crime and justice studies at King’s College, London, says it is “totally unacceptable” for the prison service to be exempted from the charge of corporate manslaughter.

Colin Moses, chair of the Prison Officers’ Association, says that while the Zahid Mubarek inquiry was correct to name individuals, their failings should be viewed as “errors of judgment rather than deliberate”. He adds: “We need an education culture, not a blame culture.”

POA solicitor Tony Marriott, who represented a number of individuals named and criticised in the final report, says staff will oppose any disciplinary action against them. He says they have been through three investigations over events surrounding Zahid Mubarek’s murder – by the Metropolitan Police, the Commission for Racial Equality and the public inquiry. He also believes the report’s criticism of staff is “relatively mild” and would not warrant disciplinary proceedings.

“This was about the collective failings of a prison that was a transit camp with inadequate resources – the major criticism was about the system, not individuals.”

Liz Davies, senior social work lecturer at London Metropolitan University, warns that naming individuals could have a negative impact. She supported Lisa Athurworrey, the social worker for Victoria Climbie who was attacked in the press over the death, but says that case is proof that the naming of individuals can have “harsh consequences”.

She believes Keith should have named individuals in a separate, confidential report and recommended specific action.

None of the staff criticised in the Keith report have commented following its publication, but a legal representative for one individual says he is “distraught” at being publicly named.

However, real justice will not be done for Zahid’s family until individuals are held more fully to account. In the words of the family barrister, Dexter Dias: “If the prison service had done its job, Zahid would be alive now.” cc

New AssetTimeline
January 2000
Zahid Mubarek, 19, began a 90-day sentence at Feltham Young Offender Institution for stealing £6 worth of razorblades, going equipped for theft and interfering with a motor vehicle. It was his first time in prison.

February 2000
Robert Stewart, also 19, was moved into Zahid’s cell in Feltham’s Swallow Unit. Stewart had 18 separate convictions for 71 offences and was awaiting trial for harassment charges.

21 March 2000
In the early hours of 21 March, Stewart battered Zahid with a table leg. Zahid died in hospital seven days later.

1 November 2000
Stewart was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Report’s key findings and recommendations
Cell sharing

“The tragic and inescapable fact is that Stewart was placed in Zahid’s cell because that’s where the one space in Swallow Unit was.”

Staff had no guidance on how to allocate prisoners at the time of the murder.

The elimination of enforced cell sharing

Mental health
“The care of prisoners with mental health problems was unacceptably poor.”

Robert Stewart was never seen by a doctor at Feltham, so his medical record containing a diagnosis of personality disorder was never looked at.

Recommendation: A review of care for prisoners with mental health problems

“A catastrophic breakdown in communications.”

Vital information on Robert Stewart was not passed on or acted upon by a number of prisons.

Recommendations: The National Police Computer should be linked to the whole prison estate and prisons should establish a proper system for vetting security files.

“Explicit racism on the part of individual officers wasÉprevalent at Feltham”.

Robert Stewart’s racism was identified as playing a “significant part” in the murder but staff had failed to monitor it.

Recommendation: Recognise the concept of institutional religious intolerance, similar to that of institutional racism agreed by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry

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