Race watchdog starts inquiry into prisons

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The Independent Online

The commission for Racial Equality announced yesterday it was taking the "exceptional and serious step" of launching a "no-holds-barred" formal investigation into racism in the Prison Service.

The commission for Racial Equality announced yesterday it was taking the "exceptional and serious step" of launching a "no-holds-barred" formal investigation into racism in the Prison Service.

The investigation follows the racist murder of an Asian inmate at a west London jail and comes as it emerged yesterday that police are investigating the death of a black woman prisoner at a jail in the Midlands.

Solicitors acting for the family of Edita Pomell, 20, from Birmingham, said she had complained of racial and sexual harassment by staff before being found dead on 5 May at Brockhill Prison. West Mercia Police, which is investigating the death, had broadened its inquiry to include the deaths of three other women inmates at the jail in the past 18 months.

The CRE investigation, which was revealed by The Independent last weekend, will focus on three prisons: Feltham Young Offenders' Institution in west London, Brixton Prison in south London and the privately run Parc Prison in south Wales.

It was at Feltham that Zahid Mubarek, a 19-year-old inmate, was brutally murdered by his openly racist cellmate, Robert Stewart, earlier this year. Stewart, 20, who was mentally ill, was recently jailed for life.

Parc Prison, which is run by Securicor, has been criticised by the prison inspectorate for its poor race relations. Black prisoners moved to Parc from jails in England have complained of being attacked by white gangs, including the Rhondda Skins. Some inmates have said that one part of the jail is known as a "Ku Klux Klan Wing".

Although more recent inspections have suggested that the situation at Parc has improved, the CRE is anxious to investigate and to explore claims that English young prisoners have been victimised by Welsh inmates.

Brixton Prison was recently described by the Prison Service's own Race Relations Adviser as "institutionally racist". A race audit found that black prisoners were being kept locked up for no good reason and some had been told to "go back to Africa" by some staff.

The CRE was particularly disturbed by the case of Claude Johnson, a black Brixton officer, who has been subjected to sustained harassment by some white colleagues. Yesterday Gurbux Singh, the CRE chairman, said the commissioners were "deeply concerned" by the incidence of "proven racial discrimination in the Prison Service". He said: "It is unacceptable to allow racist bullying, harassment, violence and murder to continue unchecked in our prisons - whether between inmates, inmates and staff, or amongst the staff themselves."

Mr Singh said that the investigation was concentrating on three jails, to keep it "manageable" but that it would also look at practices in Prison Service headquarters.

He said: "I sincerely hope that (the investigation's) conclusions will be treated in the same way, with the same importance attached, as the recommendations that came out of MacPherson."

But Suresh Grover, an adviser to the Mubarek family, said the relatives of the dead man would be upset that the investigation was not to be held in public.

Martin Narey, Prison Service Director-General, said he had "invited" the CRE to carry out its investigation and welcomed its decision to proceed.

The Prison Service said an officer from Brockhill Prison had been suspended "following allegations of professional misconduct". Prison sources said the deaths at Brockhill were "regrettable but not in any way related."

But Dan Rubinstein, lawyer for the family of Ms Pomell, said: "Not only was she reported missing for a period of at least one hour within the prison, but she had previously complained of sexual and racist harassment by a particular prison officer."