by Sibia Akhtar (Resistance Lab)
Both the policing and prison system offer systematic issues for ethnic minorities in Britain. The issues of policing are often underlaid with the issues within the prison system. Disparities in the treatment of ethnic minorities are prevalent in both systems of oppression as the policing disparities continue in prison. We need to identify the systematic similarities within the policing practices and prison life whereby there is a lack of concern for the treatment of ethnic minorities by the officers and the inmates. This is evident when we consider how decisions made by senior officers in 2000 resulted in the unjust killing of Zahid Mubarek at Feltham Youth Detention centre, London.
Zahid Mubarek was a 19-year-old British Pakistani Muslim, in prison for a first-time offence. He was given a 90-day prison sentence for stealing razors. Mubarek was involved in petty crimes and had run-ins with police officers. His serving of 90 days for stealing a packet of razors for his first offence shows how non-white individuals are given harsher sentences for petty crimes than their white counterparts. When he was just hours from being released from prison, his cellmate, Robert Stewart, hit him with a broken table leg 11 times. Mubarek was taken to hospital but died from his injuries. Mubarek’s murder highlighted the failure of the British criminal justice system from his arrest to his death, thus demonstrating the continuation of injustice from policing to prison. His murder was racially motivated, but the prison system failed to keep Mubarek, a British-Pakistani, safe in prison. He was failed by the police, prison and justice for Mubarek was not immediately served.
In this issue of policing and prison, the question is: why was Mubarek in the same cell as Stewart, who was known to be violent months before he committed a murder? He had spoken about committing his first murder and this was known by some of the prison officers at Feltham. Stewart was openly racist and had a violent past and was suffering from mental health issues. This should have been an indication to the prison guards that Stewart should not be allowed to share a cell with any of the inmates. This was predominantly the reason as to why an inquiry needed to be launched to investigate prison officers’ attitudes to their non-white inmates.
Mubarek was born in 1980, a time where race relations were characterised by white vigilantes’ physical violence towards ethnic minorities in Britain. However, this period also demonstrated a Civil Rights movement in Britain where those of African, Caribbean and South Asian descent mobilised to tackle the racism enacted towards them. Physical violence was evident on the streets but the idea that those in the youth detention centre should have been protected by the racist abuse too just shows how ‘BAME’ communities are perceived as being unBritish. Racism to ethnic minorities had been exacerbated by the politics of those in power and the racial attitudes towards these communities were under threat by racists. The racialized politics in Britain meant that forms of resistance were needed to defeat the racial abuse. The police were unsupportive of these communities who were being attacked and the freedom of speech rules applied. Particularly to the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, the act of ‘Paki bashing’ became prominent in certain cities with large South Asians communities. The physical racism was much more apparent in this period as hostility to South Asian communities remained prominent. South Asian boys were overpoliced and targeted by the police officers, and at the same time they were suffering as victims from racist violence. ‘Race Riots’ were prominent in cities like Bradford, London and Manchester. South Asian boys particularly defended their communities as they knew that the police would not take the abuse seriously by police officials and the Criminal Justice System.
Before Mubarek’s death, he met with his father a few times and told him about his cellmate Stewart and that he was behaving strangely to which his father responded that Mubarek should stay out of his way and should not let anything get in the way of his release. Mubarek followed his father’s requests but his father did not know that Stewart was a known racist. Mubarek had even notified the prison officers that he wanted to change cells and the prison guards failed to respond promptly to Mubarek’s call. However, the positioning of Mubarek to share a cell with Stewart was not a minor institutional error but a fatal one.
The racialised policing of prison guards was demonstrated when Mubarek was placed in a cell with a known racist who was suffering from mental health issues. This shows how there is a disregard for these issues which have not been tackled properly or considered. It is a fatal situation and the points made in the inquiry must be considered to prevent further disproportionate deaths in the prison service. The inquiry followed after constant pressure from the victim’s family to have his death investigated, and this is also another consideration as to why families have to constantly battle to have these inquiries take place.
By 2008, the family of Mubarek were able to launch an inquiry into the murder of their son. This was seen as a victory for the family and those involved in the case, but it took so long and required continuous pressure from the family, MPs such as David Blunkett and community activists to push for the inquiry to take place. The inquiry found that his death was preventable. Also, the inquiry demonstrated that the prison officers showed little concern about Stewart, known for racism and harassment, but also as someone suffering from mental health issues, sharing a cell with anyone let alone a Pakistani boy.
As news articles from the time showed, police officers refused to follow up on the inquest into Mubarek’s death and the similarities with the death of Stephen Lawrence, particularly there were parallels between the policing and covering up of unjust deaths of ‘BAME’ individuals and the institutionalised racism within the prison. A report was needed to show that the police service was to blame for the death and appropriate consideration of Mubarek’s self. In the report, the police officers knew of Stewart’s racist history, his ongoing letters depicting racial violence, but also that Mubarek asked numerous times that he wanted to be moved away from his cellmate.
The Mubarek inquiry (2014) also found that prison officers were unlikely to check on the wellbeing of the prisoners, particularly those who are vulnerable. But it also highlighted that many officers were not equipped to see these issues taking place in the cell. Here arises the problem of cell sharing, and the dangers associated with this. The practice of cell sharing highlighted that it needs to be removed to prevent these deaths from taking place in the future, and the training of prison officers needs to be improved to protect the ‘BAME’ individuals. Especially because Mubarek did reach out to the prison officers about Stewart multiple times, yet this was never investigated until after his death.
The importance of recovering these cases demonstrates how far we still need to go in terms of how the police and prison officers treat ‘BAME’ people, in this case a South Asian individual. The way policing operates in the prison service does not aim to protect but it is a hostile place for people like Mubarek, and there needs to be structural anti-racist improvement in how the system operates. To bring about systemic change, we must continue to seek justice and hold the perpetrators accountable whilst also supporting the affected communities.
 Solomos, J. (2003) Race and Racism in Britain, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
 HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2014). Report of a review of the implementation of the Zahid Mubarek Inquiry recommendations A thematic review. London: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons.
 Family wins race murder inquiry Alan Travis Home affairs editor The Guardian (1959-2003); Sep 5, 2001; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer
 HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2014). Report of a review of the implementation of the Zahid Mubarek Inquiry recommendations A thematic review. London: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, p.6.
 Rollock, N. (2009) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Ten Years On, London: Runnymede Trust.