Stop throwing people to the lions

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The Independent Online

It is rare that a Government approaching the end of its first term can claim with no fear of contradiction that one of its main election pledges has been completely upheld. But Tony Blair's government can.

It is rare that a Government approaching the end of its first term can claim with no fear of contradiction that one of its main election pledges has been completely upheld. But Tony Blair's government can.

Its manifesto declared that "young offenders will be punished". That promise has been upheld. Young offenders have been punished.

Zahid Mubarek has been punished. Imprisoned for 90 days for shoplifting £6 worth of razor blades and interfering with a motor vehicle, he was beaten to death by his cell-mate as he slept on the night before his release.

Obviously, there is tremendous anger that this 19-year-old was placed in a cell with a known racist psychopath, whose letters out of prison to his friends were not intercepted by prison officers, even though they contained racist threats directed at his cell-mate and others. This appalling operational decision has been focused on by Zahid's grieving father.

But while that anger is certainly justified, the real anger should be directed at decisions made much further back in the judicial process. What on earth was this petty teenage criminal doing with a custodial sentence, let alone one to be served at Feltham Young Offenders' Institution - an institution known for overcrowding, all-day lock-up, a huge rate of self-harm and suicide, and a reoffending rate of 80 per cent within two years? Never mind why Zahid and his murderer were in the same cell. Why were they in the same building?

It's not as if people are unaware of the reputation of this institution. Days ago the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, described young offenders institutions generally as "corrosive". Weeks ago Ian Thomas, Feltham's deputy governor, resigned from the institution because of its "Dickensian conditions". Months ago the chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, described Feltham as "rotten to the core". Years ago his predecessor, Sir Stephen Tumin, made similar criticisms. One government response has been to propose the abolition of the post of chief inspector of prisons. What might the next Labour manifesto promise? "Experienced messengers will be shot"?

At Zahid Mubarek's age I was convicted of shoplifting, but of a more expensive item, and got a £20 fine. A visit to court alone convinced me never to reoffend. Zahid also seemed genuinely to regret his crimes. So what was the difference here? That I was a university student while Zahid was not? That I was a female and Zahid was not? That I was white and Zahid was not? That my crime occurred under Thatcher, while Zahid's occurred under Blair? All of these are factors.

While my own background was not middle-class, the fact that I was at university counted hugely in my favour. Young lives full of promise cannot be blighted. Young lives whose promise is considerably less obvious can be. Working-class children are far more likely to receive custodial sentences for the same offences as middle or upper-class people. The same goes for boys versus girls - although sadly the corrective here is going the wrong way. More and more girls are receiving custodial sentences, even though the prison service is even less well-equipped to accommodate girls than it is boys.

As for racism - well of course racism has played more than one part here. The director general of the prison service, Martin Narey, admits that the prison service is "institutionally racist" and that among the prison service staff there are "pockets of blatant and malicious racism".

A recent report from the National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders found that 49 per cent of Asian prisoners had been racially abused, and 12 per cent racially attacked. No one in the judicial system or the prison system could be competent at their job and at the same time unaware of the kind of punishment for his small crimes against property that Zahid Mubarek would have been subjected to in Feltham. All they were unaware of was quite how far it would go.

As for the changes that have occurred in the judicial and prison systems in the 20 years since my own lenient and effective conviction, well, the recent history of these institutions beggars belief. As in all public services, we have been hearing for two decades now that the root of all problems is "bleeding-heart liberalism" or "softly, softly do-gooding". Yet all the while - and it has been a long while now - that these supposed evils have been being combated, prisons have got nastier, convictions have got tougher and crime has got nastier.

And still it continues. Finally, under a supposedly liberal government, after all the damage that has been done by successive right-wing governments, we have far more young people in prison than ever before. Magistrates have enthusiastically embraced new powers to sentence young offenders to custody. They say it is always only as a last resort. But I would like to know from the person who sentenced Zahid exactly why his case constituted a last resort.

Meanwhile, the Children's Society - Church of England do-gooders - says that no one under 18 should be in prison at all. The Howard League for Prison Reform - bleeding-heart liberals - suggests that only 10 per cent of people under 20 held in custody actually need to be there at all.

But the myth continues to grow that we are soft on young offenders, and the Government does its best to distance itself from any accusation that chimes with that myth. Positive steps are being made in the treatment of offenders, tiny steps that all work, but must be kept tiny for fear of accusations of molly-coddling. The recent pilot schemes offering drug rehabilitation in prison confirm that tackling inmates' problems works far better than making things as vile for them as possible. Yet still the accusations come. Look at Thompson and Venables. Unlike Zahid, who shoplifted as a teenager, they killed as children. Their treatment in custody has been immaculate, everything that a bleeding-heart liberal could hope for. And of course it has worked. But still the nation is up in arms. Why rehabilitate children when you can wait till they are adults and start punishing them all over again?

Yet while the handling of James Bulger's killers' incarceration has been caring and liberal, those committing far less serious crimes received no such treatment. Young men like Zahid are thrown to the lions every day, while young men like his murderer, Robert Stewart, find that prison is the ideal place for committing their most virulent crimes.

For this young man, now sentenced to life imprisonment, is a victim too. He was physically abused by his father and emotionally abused by his mother. He was in care at 14, and received his first custodial sentence at 15. Diagnosed in 1997 as having a personality disorder, he attempted suicide in Lancaster Farms young offenders' unit in 1998.

This, one of the few young offenders' units in the country which has an exemplary record, was just one of nine Stewart had been in before he arrived at Feltham on remand for sending malicious communications.

He is a dangerous, violent, mentally ill young man. Now he has been given life imprisonment for murder. Even now, after the unspeakable crime he has committed, it is not prison he needs, but psychiatric hospital. That is where he should have been on the night he killed Zahid Mubarek. And Zahid? He should have been at home with his family, sleeping peacefully after a productive day getting the help he needed to make a happy life for himself and for others.