Do we need another report into prison racism?

The inquiries are fig leaves that assure us that Something is Being Done, when nothing gets done
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The Independent Online

It has taken almost three years and cost three-quarters of a million pounds. Yet the report by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) on the murder of 19-year-old Zahid Mubarek tells us, and the young man's family, nothing at all that we didn't know already.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Even though the killing of Mr Mubarek is one of the most shocking crimes ever to have been committed in a young offenders' institution (YOI) - or anywhere in the prison system - the CRE's inquiry was not even commissioned solely to deal with this incident.

In March 2000, the night before he was due to be released from his 90-day sentence in the notorious Feltham YOI, Mr Mubarek was beaten to death by his psychotic, racist cellmate, 20-year-old Robert Stewart. Mr Stewart had actually written letters to friends, boasting that he was going to kill his "pad mate". He had a string of offences behind him, was a Nazi sympathiser, and was known to be a violent racist. Heaven knows why he was viewed as a suitable cellmate for Mr Mubarek. We don't, though, because this report does not enlighten us.

What crime had Mr Mubarek committed that ended in the brutal, unspeakable loss of his life? He had shoplifted razor blades and tampered with a vehicle. It was his first offence, in this nation of ours where, rumour has it, we're soft on youth crime.

Commentingon the report, the CRE chairman, Trevor Phillips, said: "Zahid Mubarek died because of a combination of Robert Stewart's racism and failures by the Prison Service to provide him with appropriate protection. I am convinced that had Zahid been white, he would not have died."

There is much more detail in the report, of course. But essentially this is its conclusion. Where does it lead us? Nowhere. The failures by the Prison Service have already been documented in the Butt report, an internal Prison Service inquiry. That racism was an essential factor in the murder was already acknowledged by the fact that Paul Boateng, then prisons minister, referred the case to the CRE.

The chain of events that led to this inquiry had already been set in motion long before Mr Mubarek was killed. In fact, the day before his death, another inquiry, led by the Prison Service race advisor, Judy Clements, had just been delivered, confirming widespread racism against staff and inmates at a south London jail.

The Clements report had focused on reports of racial discrimination against staff in Brixton prison, and was triggered after Claude Johnson, a black prison officer, had taken the Prison Service to an industrial tribunal. Mr Johnson alleged that racial abuse by staff in Brixton had caused him to have a nervous breakdown. His complaint was upheld, and he received £28,000 in compensation. Unbelievably, after he had returned to work, the abuse was allowed to continue, forcing the head of the service to issue a public apology to him.

Meanwhile, black prisoners who had been moved from the south of England to Parcs prison in south Wales had also complained of racial discrimination. They alleged that one wing of the prison was run by racist skinhead prisoners, and was known as the Ku Klux Klan wing because of the association of the gang, who called themselves the Rhondda Skins, with the KKK.

Both sets of allegations had already been referred to the CRE at the time of Mr Mubarek's death. This incident was simply added to the CRE's investigation, to the deep distrust of Mr Mubarek's family, who have been pressing since 2000 for a full public inquiry.

In the meantime, there have been plenty of other hints of what Martin Narey, the former Director-General of the Prison Service, has already admitted to be "institutionalised racism" within the service. In fact, he himself, after he had made this comment, was the target of hate mail which he suggested must have come from his own staff within the Prison Service.

Other unsettling goings-on include the arrest of two prison offers at Holloway, who had been reported to the police for racial harassment and who were found, in a raid on their shared home, to own racist literature and pictures of Adolf Hitler. Similar items were found in the home of a Pentonville officer. A further case, in which a prison officer was sacked for refusing to remove a swastika badge and an SS pin from his uniform, resulted in the officer blithely appealing against his dismissal.

All this, too, the CRE has been investigating, although this aspect of its report, for some quite unfathomable reason, is not yet ready, after all this time, for release into the public domain. Perhaps the reason is because too close a link between these other instances of racist behaviour by prison officers would tar the officer at Feltham too liberally with the same brush.

Certainly, neither the Butt report nor this one names any specific officers at Feltham as having failed in their duty. One of the lawyers representing the Mubarek family, Dan Rubinstein, remains unconvinced that they should be exonerated in such a way. He suggests that Mr Mubarek may possibly have been placed in a cell with Mr Stewart as "a wind-up". Such an accusation seems almost obscene, but then again, perhaps Mr Rubinstein knows whereof he speaks. He also represents another family, whose 20-year-old daughter, Edita Pomell, was found dead in Brockhill prison in the Midlands after she had complained of sexual and racial harassment.

The second, and more politically significant, part of the CRE's report is likely to reach a conclusion of "institutionalised racism" in the Prison Service. But will this make any real difference? The Prison Service, after all, is already aware of the problem. Feltham itself has been tackling racism since Mr Mubarek's murder, and invited Neville Lawrence, father of Stephen, to come and give a series of talks to staff on the subject.

In acknowledgement that more virulent strains of neo-Nazi racism may have infiltrated the Prison Service, it has already been announced that membership of the British National Party is "incompatible" with service in Britain's prisons, and that those found to be members of the party will be dismissed.

How much this sort of formal activity really helps is another matter. In the months after the Lawrence inquiry, for example, it actually looked as if British racism - especially the institutionalised variety - was finally going to be tackled. Instead, here were are, awaiting another report due to pinpoint the same old shortcomings.

The truth is that the racism problem is acute in the prisons, because all the problems on the "outside" are more acute in the prisons, be they debt, drugs, depression - you name it. Everything that blights us on the outside is concentrated on the inside. Our whole attitude to prison and what it is for is an awful distillation of our attitudes about civilian life and what it is for.

A better society would have better social sanctions. Racism is one of our problems. But there are plenty of others. One of them, it sometimes appears, is the endless commissioning of inquiries and investigations, all ponderously coming to conclusions that were as plain as the noses on our faces all along. They are fig leaves designed to reassure us that Something is Being Done, when actually nothing gets done until the next report comes in.