Academic journal article Social Justice

Comment: Racism and Custody Deaths in the U.K.: The Zahid Mubarek Inquiry

Academic journal article Social Justice

Comment: Racism and Custody Deaths in the U.K.: The Zahid Mubarek Inquiry

Article excerpt


ON MARCH 21,2000, ZAHID MUBAREK WAS ATTACKED AND FATALLY INJURED BY his cell mate, Robert Stewart, at Young Offenders Institution Feltham, which is managed by Her Majesty's Prison Service southwest of London. It was immediately apparent that Zahid's murder was the consequence of an unprovoked attack by a known racist. An internal inquiry was held. This appeared to satisfy the government's concerns regarding accountability within a state institution. Zahid's family embarked on a protracted campaign and legal battle to force a full, independent, and government-backed public inquiry into the institutional circumstances surrounding Zahid's murder. Arguing that all relevant information was already in the public domain and the killing had been appropriately investigated, then Home Secretary David Blunkett initially denied a public inquiry. Yet the family fought the case all the way to the House of Lords, and in October 2003, the Lords ordered the home secretary to convene an independent public inquiry into Zahid's death.

The inquiry commenced in 2004. Racism was central to its concerns, not solely because Zahid had been killed in a racially motivated attack, but because it was well known within the Young Offenders' Institution (YOI) that Robert Stewart was a violent racist. Thus, the issue to be determined was whether explicit or unwitting institutionalized racism had played a part in the decision to pair Zahid with Stewart. Zahid was 19 years old and a first-time prisoner serving three months for theft and "interfering with a motor vehicle." Robert Stewart was a deeply disturbed skinhead with expressed racist views. He proclaimed "KKK" on his cell notice board. "RIP" was tattooed on his forehead. At the time of Zahid's death, the Prison Service could not deny knowledge of Stewart's racist beliefs. The Feltham staff had intercepted a letter full of explicit racist invective. He was merely instructed to rewrite the letter in a tone that would satisfy the prison censors.

Feltham YOI had a history of serious problems, including deaths in custody, systemic bullying, and deep-rooted racism. The Prison Inspectorate's reports on Feltham in 1995 and 1998 had been damning, yet little had changed. An inquiry by the Hounslow Racial Equality Council, chaired by its director, Satvinder Buttar, was issued as a report. Based on findings from Feltham "Black and minority ethnic" prisoner focus groups conducted between January and March 2001, it demonstrated unequivocally the widespread and institutionalized racist abuse at the jail. The report noted:

   We were made aware that racial abuse from some of the white prison
   officers was a common practice. Black and ethnic minority inmates
   were called "monkeys," "black bastards," and told that "they should
   be sent back to their own country...." There was a general feeling
   amongst the groups that black and ethnic minority inmates were being
   pushed by white prison officers to such an extent that they would
   find it difficult to cope and might attempt suicide (Buttar, 2001:

Reflecting on the findings, Satvinder Buttar later commented that prisoners had given evidence that "prison officers would push you, push you, push you so far. And there's nothing you can do. And they'll push you so far you're right on the verge of committing suicide." It was a culture in which "if officers don't like you they would keep pushing you until you did something to yourself instead of them doing it to you" (The Guardian, September 18, 2004). It was in this context that the public inquiry took place.

The Inquiry and Findings

The inquiry was chaired by Justice Keith, a High Court judge, whose terms of reference required him to investigate the events leading up to the attack on Zahid, and to make recommendations for minimizing the risk of such attacks of recurring. The inquiry received 143 written statements, with 62 individuals giving evidence in person. …

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