Leading article: The ills of our youth prison system laid bare


The official report into the murder of the Asian teenager Zahid Mubarek makes for grim reading. Mubarek was bludgeoned to death with a table leg by his white cell-mate at Feltham young offender institution just a day before his scheduled release six years ago. That this report was compiled at all is the result of exemplary persistence on the part of his parents, who pressed for more than two years for an inquiry. Its shocking content shows how necessary that investigation was.

A distinguishing feature of this report is that it pulls no punches and it names names. Few emerge with any credit. It also deals as much with the big picture - prison overcrowding and understaffing - as it does with the small print of the killer's shameless racism, as revealed in his preferred viewing and his letters from Feltham. Those criticised include not only the 20 officials named, but the Prison Service, the Probation Service and the Prison Officers' Association, as well as six young offender institutions, including Feltham.

The impression it leaves is of detention arrangements for young people that fall disgracefully short of requirements in every way. To say that Robert Stewart, the youth who murdered Mubarek, had not been sufficiently monitored through the system would be an understatement. There seems to have been no continuity whatever; where reports were passed on, not even the most obvious conclusions about the risks he presented were drawn. There were failures at every level and at every stage. That Stewart was placed in the same cell as Mubarek reflects either negligence or malice - the report finds no conclusive proof that they were deliberately put together to provoke racial friction (or worse). But it did find ingrained racist attitudes among prison staff that could not but transmit themselves to the young prisoners. There was a race relations officer at Feltham, but he had no experience of this work; flagrantly racist statements and behaviour went unchallenged.

Regrettably, it is hard to evince much surprise about the failures described in this report. The chain of events foreshadows all too accurately the faults relating to early releases and foreign prisoners that have recently flooded out of the Home Office. Here, too, we have had overcrowding and understaffing, along with the poor working practices in the Prison Service, the Probation Service and the rest. By unhappy coincidence, the report into the Mubarek murder was published on the day that the prison population in England and Wales reached a record 77,865.

The report finds no definitive explanation as to why Stewart killed Mubarek. But it suggests that it was only a matter of time before something as appalling as this happened at Feltham. This institution was notorious for being the largest and harshest prison for young offenders in western Europe. Seven years ago, conditions were described by the then chief inspector of prisons as "totally unacceptable in a civilised country". That report appeared to spur change. By 2002, the new chief inspector of prisons said the whole culture of the place had been changed. The climate of lax management and overt racism, in which Stewart was able to murder a young Asian, suggests that the changes were nothing like thorough enough.

The best that can be hoped for is that the recommendations are acted on without delay. These will cost money, as the Prison Officers' Association was concerned to point out in their official response. But it is not only money that is needed. Many of the things that led to the killing of Zahid Mubarek had to do with awareness, attitudes to racial and religious difference, and - quite simply - catastrophically bad management.

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