David Ramsbotham: Are ministers doing all they can to prevent another Feltham?

When I returned to Feltham, conditions were if anything worse
Click to follow

Last week saw the publication of the report following Mr Justice Keith's painstaking public inquiry into the murder of Zahid Mubarek, a 19 year old serving a short sentence in Feltham Young Offender Institution, who was murdered by his cellmate, a known psychopath and racist, in March 2000. The report is a devastating indictment of the Prison Service, 19 of whose members are named and shamed. It is also a devastating indictment of the Government.

At the time of the murder I was Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, and had carried out three inspections of Feltham, in 1996, 1998 and 1999. I had been appalled by what I found in 1996, not least because no one in government, or Prison Service headquarters, seemed to be taking a blind bit of notice of the constant warnings by the admirable board of visitors about the dangers of overcrowding.

I made a large number of recommendations, including a call for a director of young offenders in Prison Service headquarters, responsible and accountable for the treatment of and conditions for young offenders.

When I returned two years later, virtually none of my recommendations had been actioned. Conditions were, if anything, worse. I complained to the then home secretary, Jack Straw, who ordered an investigation.

When I returned again in 1999 I found evidence of a great deal of planning, but little implementation, and no director of young offenders. Although undeniably short of resources, Feltham is afflicted by poor management by the Prison Service. Everything was left up to the governor, who had to cope with the stifling demands of bureaucracy and a particularly militant and disruptive Prison Officers' Association. My immediate reflection, on hearing there had been a murder at Feltham, was that this was a tragedy that had been waiting to happen.

I first met Zahid Mubarek's father and uncle in early April 2000, when the then prisons minister, Paul Boateng, asked me to sit with him when he met the family. His intention was to indicate that there would be an independent and objective investigation. I realise I was only there for PR purposes because, as was its wont, the Prison Service appointed its own internal inquiry which, typically, found that no one was to blame.

This outcome incensed all those who knew the circumstances at Feltham. The subsequent fight to secure a public inquiry does none of those who resisted it any credit. Sanity was only restored when the House of Lords ordained that any inquiry should not only investigate this case but also how such attacks could be prevented in the future.

John Reid should now insist on drastic changes to the management structure of the Prison Service, as all the reports submitted on failing prisons by me or my predecessors and successor have suggested. In particular he should order there to be directors of discrete groups of prisoners. The director should be responsible and accountable to him, through the Director General of the Prison Service, for consistent conditions for and treatment of young offenders.

If he does not, I fear that, as with too many of my recommendations, those compiled by Mr Justice Keith will not be implemented. To allow that would be to dishonour not just Zahid Mubarek's memory, but the dignity and courage of his family.

It would also confirm my contention that the Government and the Prison Service stand indicted of not having done all that they could have done to prevent such a dreadful event happening again.

Lord Ramsbotham was Chief Inspector of Prisons, 1995-2001