In one eight-day period in February, three young Asian men died while in the custody of British prisons. And all three deaths were, apparently, self-inflicted. Are these deaths signs of a growing crisis of British Asians in the prison system?
First, on 20 February, Sajjad Hussein, 20, was found hanged in his cell at Lancaster Farms, Young Offenders’ Institute (YOI). The next day, Zahid Fausal, 28, was found hanged in his cell at Canterbury prison. Seven days later, on 28 February, Anwar Islam, 36, was found dead in his cell at high security Long Lartin prison in Worcestershire. The causes of the deaths are yet to be established, but a number of factors may have played a part.
According to Home Office statistics, since October 2003, both Canterbury and Lancaster Farms prisons were overcrowded. In January 2004, the Howard League for Penal Reform ranked Canterbury in its ‘top ten’ most overcrowded prisons.
The Chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, M. Shadjareh, told IRR News: ‘there needs to be a thorough investigation, especially if this type of incident has at its root Islamophobia, which has been increasing since September 11. It’s had a devastating effect on the Muslim community.’ Jenny Bourne, senior researcher at the Institute of Race Relations, commented: ‘For three Asian young men to take their own lives in just one week means something is terribly wrong in the prison system. Has nothing been learnt since the death of Zahid Mubarek and the inquiries into prison racism?’
Whether racism played a part in their deaths remains to be seen. However, the Prison Service has already been found guilty of racial discrimination, following an investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality into the murder of Zahid Mubarek by his racist cellmate at Feltham YOI in 2000. It found fourteen areas of failure in its review of a number of prisons. These included the general atmosphere; the treatment of prisoners; access to goods, facilities and services; investigation of race complaints and protection from victimisation.
A report by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders in 2000 found that 49 per cent of Asian prisoners had been racially abused and 12 per cent had been racially attacked. And, more recently, at Belmarsh maximum-security prison, Amnesty International (AI) reported that men being held under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 had been racially abused and intimidated by guards. AI reported that the men were suffering ‘cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment’, they were called ‘bin men’ by the guards and were strip-searched before and after family visits. In January 2004, Muslim prisoners at Belmarsh were told that they had to celebrate Eid a day late because of staff shortages.