In January 2000, nineteen year old Zahid Mubarek was convicted of shoplifting £6 worth of goods from a supermarket and was sentenced to serve ninety days at Feltham Young Offender Institution. In the early hours of the morning of his imminent release, Zahid was attacked by his cellmate – Robert Stewart. Stewart used a broken off table leg as the deadly weapon and inflicted terrible injuries on the sleeping Zahid, hitting him eleven times. Zahid never recovered from massive head injuries inflicted by Stewart and died a week later in hospital in March 2000.
Robert Stewart, who was also nineteen at the time of the murder, was a young man with a prison career which, despite his youth, spanned six prison sentences. His previous convictions included the attempted murder of another inmate, stabbing a fellow inmate below the eye, and racial harassment. His prison records also suggested that he had a long history of mental illness and extreme racist views. A year before Zahid was murdered, one prison officer noted on Stewart’s records:
‘I do feel that this lad is a disaster waiting to happen, he cannot be trusted…’
Another Prison officer described Stewart as a ‘very disturbed young man’ who should not have been sharing a cell with anyone. On his arrival at Feltham it was commented by a senior Prison Officer that Stewart had the largest prison file he had ever seen.
In November 2000 Robert Stewart was convicted of murder and ordered to serve a life sentence for the murder of Zahid Mubarek. Whilst the criminal trial was taking place, a Prison Service internal investigation led by retired Governor, Ted Butt, was also in progress.
The danger that Stewart posed was known by the Prison Service for a considerable period. He was an exceedingly volatile and dangerous individual. If proper procedures had been followed, Stewart’s virulent racism should have been clearly identified and acted upon by those who had the duty to monitor Stewart in custody and protect Zahid.
One of the most damning pieces of evidence was that Robert Stewart was a known racist with a very long record of writing racist letters from his prison cell covered in Nazi symbols. Also, he was a skin-head with a cross and the letters ‘R.I.P’ etched onto his forehead. A letter written by Stewart was intercepted while he was at Feltham. A prison officer made entries on his wing file about his racism and the hostile way in which he expressed himself toward black and minority ethnic prisoners. The inquiry found that this should have caused concerns to staff and that he was unfit to share a cell with anyone, let alone someone from an ethnic minority. But there was, as Mr Justice Keith was later to find, a culture of ‘allowing racism to go unchecked at Feltham’ and this was reprehensible. The Prison Service failed in its duty of care towards Zahid. This was recognised by the Director General Martin Narey. He accepted during the course of investigation that Zahid’s was a ‘preventable death’ and went further by adding ‘There’s no element of denial, I’ve been absolutely up front about the problems we have. It goes beyond institutional racism to blatant malicious pockets of racism.’
Whilst many of Feltham’s failings were of wider consequence they raised more and more questions for the family of Zahid Mubarek. A few of these questions included: Why was Zahid made to share a cell with a known racist for six weeks? How was Stewart able to make weapons in his cell without any prison staff being alerted? Why were Stewart’s racist letters not monitored, when he was on remand at Feltham for writing racially abusive letters? And why were Zahid’s requests to change cells ignored?
The Mubarek Family, from the start has been concerned to uncover the true nature of the malpractices and failings that plagued the prison system in this case so that lessons could be learned and other young men like Zahid could be protected in the future.
The Mubarek Family drove a long and arduous campaign for four years, to try and get some answers to these questions and to persuade the Government to hold a Public Inquiry into the death in custody of Zahid. The aim of such an Inquiry was to show that Zahid’s death was not simply attributable to Stewart’s murderous behaviour but also to shine a light on those practices in the Prison Service that put a vulnerable Asian teenager in a cell for six weeks with a known racist.
However, a series of legal challenges made by the family were appealed by the then Home secretary – David Blunkett, thus preventing an Inquiry from taking place. Eventually, the Mubarek Family launched an appeal to the House of Lords who voted unanimously to overturn the Home Secretary’s decision. Subsequently this decision also set a historical legal precedent (ex parte Amin, House of Lords; 2005). Read Law report here
In July 2004, David Blunkett was legally bound to recede and announced the Zahid Mubarek Public Inquiry. The Inquiry was to last for over 18 months and:
Heard from 62 oral witnesses
Received 143 witness statements
Considered a bundle of documentary evidence, containing more than 15,000 pages
Visited eight prisons
Commissioned 14 focus groups of prison officers and prisoners; and
Conducted six seminars, which were attended in total by 56 expert delegates
The chair of the inquiry, Justice Keith released his report on June 2006, which produced a damning indictment of the authorities and described how they had failed to keep Zahid safe. Read the Zahid Mubarek Inquiry report here
On concluding the report, Justice Keith said that he was ‘shocked and dismayed’ by what he found, because of a ‘pernicious and dangerous cocktail of poor communication and shoddy work practices’ and suggested that Zahid’s death was ‘entirely preventable’.
The Prison Service’s own inquiry into Feltham found that it was institutionally racist and this fact was also reiterated by the then Director General of Prisons, Martin Narey. In addition, the Inquiry team also found evidence to suggest the rise of anti-religious sentiment from within the prison structure and recommended recognition of the concept of ‘institutional religious intolerance’.
The report went on to highlight over 213 failings in over twelve institutions, and it mentioned 22 individual staff, who were directly culpable by failing in their duties, none of whom was held accountable.
At the heart of it all, though, was a catastrophic breakdown in communications, not just between one prison and another, but also within individual prisons themselves. Files on prisoners went missing, vital information was not passed on, and when it was, it was often not acted on. Those files which got to their intended destination were often incomplete or expressed in such broad terms that they were of little use to the reader unless further information was sought.
‘Either you keep the prison population down by changing sentencing policy, or you accept that the prison population will increase, and you inject sufficient funds into the system to ensure that prisoners are treated decently and humanely.’ Justice Keith Chair of the Zahid Mubarek Inquiry, 2006.
The overall breakdown which caused Zahid’s death to occur were so grave and widespread that it prompted the family counsel to deem the racist murder of Zahid Mubarek as nothing short of ‘Institutional Murder’.
Over 88 recommendations were made. The Home Office unequivocally accepted 55 of the Keith Recommendations; the remaining recommendations are either under further consideration or have been rejected.
A detailed and complete history of the events surrounding the death of Zahid Mubarek can be found here: chronology of events leading to Zahids death