Impressive detail but at its heart a failure to understand Prison: A critical review of the Zahid Mabarek Inquiry Report

On the 24 March 2000, Zahid Marbarak, a 19 year-old prison in Feltham was killed by his cell mate Robert Stewart. Zahid ‘was five hours from the end of a 90-day sentence for stealing razor blades worth £6.’

Searching for something completely unrelated I came across an article I wrote for the No Prison website in July 2006, days after Justice Keith’s report had been published.

I am currently working on the 1853 Royal Commission into Birmingham Prison following the death of another teenager, 15-year-old Edward Andrews.  Rereading this has suggested a possible development of this project to include a comparison of the two inquiries. It would show how official discourse has developed, in the century and a half between the two inquiries, to evade recognition of the reality of the prison and instead seek to explain away the pain, abuse, suffering and death inherent in imprisonment.

Zahid, Rest in Peace

The article can be found on the No Prison website here:

Published on 29th June 2006 the Report of the Zahid Mabarek Inquiry is a weighty document that recounts in detail the prison history of Robert Stewart, Zahid’s killer and the management and operation of Britain’s Young Offender Institutes. Its 692 pages paint a detailed picture of the day to day reality of imprisonment both in terms of the vulnerable, powerless and damaged people we cage and the violent, lawless, and unproductive regimes they are subjected to. Racism, bullying, endless hours locked up doing nothing, managerial chaos, injustice, endemic self harm, incompetent medical services and much more is carefully documented. But this reality is no great revelation, generations of prisoners have recounted equally horrific accounts of their experiences and even the Governments own inspectorate regularly publish reports detailing one failed prison after another.

Over two hundred years ago the prison missionary John Howard visited prisons and was horrified at what he found. Like every subsequent prison reformer he believed that the abuses and failings he had discovered were the result of poor administration, staff deficiencies, inadequate policies and architectural defects. From Howard to today the grim and painful reality of prison life has not been seen as an intrinsic consequence of prison but as a defect susceptible to an easy fix. The Mubarek Report follows in this tradition with a long list of recommendations it confidently believes will resolve or mitigate the problems uncovered. This is a dangerous illusion. Feltham was no aberration – Imprisonment almost inevitably leads to abusive and violent regimes. That is the nature of prison. If we really want to stop further deaths we need to face this reality, stop trying to reform the unreformable and instead close Feltham and other prisons.

The violence of prison

Zahid Mubarek life ended violently in prison at the hands of another teenager, Robert Stewart. The report into his death seeks to address the problem of prisoner on prisoner violence. It seeks to do this without addressing wider issues of violence within prison.

Prisons exist to punish – they are meant to hurt. Although this pain is primarily intended to be mental rather than physical the very act of imprisoning someone involves deliberately inflicting violence on him or her. Prison reformers, academics and prison administrators tend to try and avoid this reality but those who have to endure prison understand that they are receiving pain and violence as an intended facet of their punishment. Power within prison, both official and unofficial, is based on the capacity to enforce through violence. For example regular strip searches in prisons humiliate and degrade. If resisted they are violently enforced. Earlier this year the Carlise Report on the treatment of children in prisons gave examples which included a 16 year old girl strip searched during her period who had her stained sanitary pad examined in front of her and then given back to her to reuse and a 15 year old boy having to part his buttocks and roll back his foreskin for inspection by prison officers.

In addition to institutional violence daily acts of individual violence occurs throughout the prison. As well as prisoner on prisoner violence, regular staff on prisoner violence occurs, as well as prisoner on staff violence and staff on staff violence. Much of the staff on prisoner violence and some of the staff on staff violence are legitimised by the system and are carried out quite openly. The Mubarek Inquiry team itself uncovered many examples of violence. They report that:

three white members of staff handcuffed an ethnic minority prisoner on Raven to the bars of his cell, removed his trousers and smeared his bottom with black shoe polish

Interestingly they add a footnote advising that despite the considerable embarrassment to the prison service and Home Office caused by this racist assault being discovered by the Inquiry the employees involved were not dismissed.

The Carlise Report identified that staff in Young Offender Institutions, and Secure Training Centres regularly used pain compliant techniques to impose discipline on children. These Home Office approved techniques were described in the report:

using the thumb – fingers are used to bend the upper joint of the thumb forwards and down towards the palm of the hand;
using the ribs – involves the inward and upward motion of the knuckles into the back of the child exerting pressure on the lower rib: and
using the nose – staff use the outside of their hand in an upward motion on the septum.

Staff on staff violence is far more common in prisons than is generally acknowledged. Bullying of staff by colleagues is endemic and violence and humiliation an established ingredient of the training on new prison officers. Again despite not looking for this the inquiry stumbled across:

two white trainee prison officers urinating on a black trainee during a training course

This culture, particular during training, ensures that those who staff our prisons are aware of the centrality of violence in their day-to-day work. The Inquiries attempts to address violence between prisoners without recognising either the violence inherent within prison regimes or the daily acts of violence perpetrated by staff on prisoners are doomed to failure.

The Fantasy Prison

Over recent years a massive gap has emerged between the descriptions of prisons by prison reformers, the government, the media, academics and prison administrators and the daily reality of prison as experience by prisoners and front line prison staff. It is important to understand the difference between the “fantasy” prison and the real prison. The fantasy prison is well managed, focused on rehabilitating and educating prisoners, experiences no violence, respects prisoners rights and is characterised by the happy faces of prisoners and staff working together. It has a comprehensive set of policies, actively challenges racist behaviour of staff and prisoners, and produces law abiding ex-prisoners who have seen the error of their past criminality and are committed to living law abiding lives.

Of course no such prison exists except in the minds of civil servants, home office funded academics and prison reform charities. For them reports like those of the Carlise and Mubarek Inquiries by exposing the ordinary reality of prison challenge their imaginary world. The recommendations are important not because they will change the real prison but because by the prison service going through the motions of implementing a number of token ‘improvements’ it allows prison apologists to maintain their belief in their imaginary best friend – the fantasy prison.

The Mubarek Inquiry report demonstrates the gap between fantasy and reality by its treatment of whistle blowing. This is an important issue. The prison officer culture responsible for so much of the brutality experienced by prisoners (and to lesser extent junior staff) relies on a code of silence. New staff will, early in their career, witness violent assaults on prisoners by their colleagues. Do they ignore them, report them or join in? Reporting will result in the officer being rejected and ostracised by other prison staff. Their allegations may be “disproved” by other staff giving evidence that no assault took place. Their working life will be made hell. Most staff initially try to ignore their colleagues abuses but often this is resented and a situation will be engineered when the new staff member will drawn into an assault and peer pressure exerted. As soon as they succumb they are corrupted by the culture. It only takes a token kick and their colleagues know they are “one of us” and welcomed them into the fold. Those that enjoy the violence become active participants, those who don’t try and avoid it but do nothing to stop it. All are contaminated.

The Mubarek Inquiry talks about whistle blowing in the context of policy. It refers to the 1998 Public Interest Disclosure Act and concludes on the basis of paper work:

The Prison Service has responded to this important statutory initiative in a positive way.

However if the Inquiry had stepped outside the fantasy prison of policy and procedure manuals and had observed the employment Tribunal taking place in Leeds in November 2005 (whilst the Mubarek Inquiry was sitting) they would have found out that whistle blowing in the real prison did not only receive a violent reaction from other prison staff but an equal vicious and nasty response from the Senior Management of the Prison Service. At Wakefield Prison Carol Lingard had reported another Prison Officer for abusing Prisoners. Her complaints were dismissed by management and she was left at the hands of the bullies. The Tribunal was somewhat less impressed than the Murbarek Inquiry in the Prison Service’s response to whistle blowing. It awarded Ms Lingard £477,000 damages, a massive award. Ms Lingard left the prison service, a colleague who gave evidence in support of her claim have been transferred to other prison where she faces potential victimisation, whilst the thugs remain, protected by the POA (Prison Officers Association), at Wakefield. The failure to refer to this case or other similar ones is a major and inexcusable deficiency in the Mubarek Report.

Reform doesn’t work

Both the Mubarek and Carlise Inquiry reports show details of the violent and abusive reality of imprisonment for children and young people. The picture they portray is not new and similar revelations have been made through Inquiries and autobiographical accounts of prison. The response to these revelations is always a combination of horror – how could things be that bad – and urgent prison reforms “surely we can make things better?”

What is missing is a realisation of the obvious. If the deficiencies and abuses so carefully documented by the pious Prison Missionary John Howard are still occurring why do prison reformers still equally piously claim that the very solution “reform” which has a two hundred year history of failure – is the answer? Surely they must know that the reforms will fail and the abuses continue? John Howard could claim that there was insufficient history for him to have known the futility of his ideas. However that excuse is not available to contemporary prison apologists.

The Mubarek Inquiry Report continually touches on prison reform with no apparent awareness of the history of prisons or penal ideas. It suggests investigation the benefits of mixing older and younger prisoners in blissful ignorance that for decades their separation was advocated by reformers and academics not only essential but potentially as a cure for crime! The reports recommendations relating to the treatment of mentally disordered offenders are not dissimilar to the routine practices and policies in operation a hundred years ago. Like so many before them the Inquiry team time and time again ignore the fundamental nature of prison and suggest administrative and procedural solutions. Often their ideas have in fact been tried in the past and failed. Nothing it seems recycles as well as prison reform clichés.

Prison reformers have started to justify their faith by picking up specific examples of prisons that were far less abusive and violent than Feltham or other contemporary British Prisons. They are of course partly right. Prisons do vary and some can claim to have had regimes that were decent. Maconochie transformed Norfolk Island in the middle of the nineteenth century from a punitive hell into a relatively civilised community. The Special Unit at Barlinne Prison was as Jimmy Boyle’s account of it illustrates a serious attempt to deliver a just, constructive and non-abusive regime. Moczydlowski certainly transformed Poland’s Prisons between 1981 and 1996. Many of the early open borstals provided decent and constructive regimes.

However equally important to the positive aspects of these and similar examples is that they all proved to be unsustainable. All four saw the positive aspects of their regimes eroded over time and ultimately a return to the brutal and abusive normality of prison. Short-term reforms are possible but in the long term reform simply doesn’t work. Those who campaign for it can only do so by ignoring history. They are deceiving both themselves and others. Why?

Race Culture and Faith

The fact that the criminal justice system and all its institutions are racist to the core should be beyond debate. Black, Asian, Irish and other ethnic minority prisoners have through their direct experience testified to this reality. The Mubarek report, despite providing direct evidence of racism displays little understanding of either the nature of racism or its role within prisons. The report seems to suggest that racism has somehow crept into prisons, that it is an aberration that requires an administrative response, a modicum of management commitment and the prison will return to its natural “equal opportunities” status. The Inquiry team admitting they did not have the resources “to determine whether the scourge of institutional racism has now been eradicated from the Prison Service” sums up this naivety. As if!

Keith particularly struggles when having to evaluate the experience of Muslim prisoners. The response of both the state and society to the events of 9/11 and the subsequent moral panics and war on terror have had dramatic impacts on the lives of Muslims living in Britain. Those caged in our prisons have been the most vulnerable. They are isolated, outside the protection of the law, exposed to violence, and defenceless. The report suggests that the experience of Muslim prisoners may be linked to “Islamaphobia in society” and this requires the extension of the Lawrence Inquiries definition of institutional racisms to be broadened to include religious intolerance. Keith however makes clear that this recommendation should not be taken as “suggesting in any way that the Prison Service should be regarded as institutionally infected with religious intolerance”. The Report’s failure to cast any light on the daily abuse, violence, victimization and brutality experienced by many Muslim prisoners is deeply worrying.

Racism is ingrained in prisons and the people who work in them. Any meaningful attempt to introduce anti racist practice or policies into prisons would cause a backlash from those who work in prison that would make them unmanageable. A modest observation by the Chief Inspector of Prisons that Prison Officers should not wear St George pins saw a vicious media response against “political correctness” despite the reality that every prisoner knew that those who wear them are not only racists but also normally paid up members of fascist political parties.

Going beyond the Mubarek Report.

Those of us who understand that prisons are fundamentally flawed institutions and beyond reform need to be cautious in our welcoming of reports like the Murbarek Inquiry. Whilst we should welcome any light that is thrown on the abusive and violent reality of prison we need to be clear that these reports are also an attempt to legitimise the very institutions that generate the abuses they investigate. This legitimisation must be exposed and resisted

However sensational the revelation of this reports we must stress that they are in fact boringly normal. The racism, violence and abuse is not some aberration, it is the normal reality of prisons. It is not a malfunction requiring reform it is prison. Reform offers the illusion that the racism, violence, pain and abuse can be removed from the prison. It seeks to legitimise prison by offering the possibility, at some unspecified future point that prison will shed these embarrassing characteristics. These are however intrinsic to prison and as history has repeatedly taught us the reforms will fail.

The Mubarek Report is at its heart an exercise in legitimising the institution of the prison. Yes it does confirm the brutal reality of prison that former prisoners have consistently reported. But it perverts this truth seeking to portray it as evidence of institutional malfunctioning rather than the more damming truth that this is simply prison. This deception is necessary to allow the Report to offer up the possibility that these defects are resolvable by implementation of a list of recommendations. This is also a deception. This second deception ensures that the reality exposed in the report doesn’t lead to the questioning of the legitimisation of prison. The problems exposed we are urged to be believed can be resolved without us having to consider the possibility of not caging either Zahid Muberak or Robert Stewart.  That is an agenda that Prison Reformers, Home Office Funded Academics and, Prison Administrators are happy to co-operate with. But it will not fundamentally change the racist, abusive and violent institutions that are British Prisons. To achieve that change requires the closure of Feltham and all other Prisons.

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