Zahid Mubarek was beaten to death by his racist cellmate at west London’s Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution in 2000.
His family have long argued the killing was “institutional murder” by the Home Office and prison service.
Director Antony Petrou’s new drama We Are Monster charts the story. The film is written by and stars Leeshon Alexander.
Leeshon told Socialist Worker, “Once you get wrapped up in the subject matter you realise this hasn’t been talked about for most of a decade. So perhaps we can do something useful —as well as making a movie we can bring it back into public awareness.
“Hopefully people will talk about it and ask, why was this allowed to happen? And why has nothing really changed?”
Zahid was serving his first prison sentence, for stealing razor blades worth £6 and interfering with a vehicle. He was due to be released on the day he was killed.
Robert Stewart was placed in a cell with Zahid. He battered Zahid to death while Zahid was asleep.
Antony said, “We had to be sensitive and it was a tough process making the film. In terms of the language and racism we looked at Robert’s letters and used them to interpret how he would speak and act.”
Zahid’s family had to campaign for years to get an independent inquiry. It reported in 2006, showing a bewildering catalogue of individual and systemic shortcomings at Feltham. It named and criticised 20 prison officials for failing to take action to prevent Zahid’s death.
The report, by Justice Keith, criticised the government for sacrificing the welfare of prisoners for votes and highlighted 186 failings that led to the murder.
The prison service had 15 chances to save Zahid from his killer. It squandered them all.
Antony explained how one element of the story had to be changed in the film to be made believable.
“When Robert fashioned the table leg as a weapon, he broke a leg off so there were only three legs on the table,” said Antony.
“He took one of the legs off and pushed that corner into the wall. We showed the weapon as a crossbar from the middle.
“I thought the audience wouldn’t believe that the guards would go in for a cell inspection and not see a missing chair leg, but that’s what happened.”
Stewart had been implicated in a prison killing in 1998 but never charged. He bragged of his desire to attack black and Asian prisoners. Stewart was found guilty of the murder of Zahid and jailed for life in November 2000.
Antony said, “In his letters he wrote, ‘I’m going to kill my pad mate, I’m going to get a sheet and put holes in it and put it over my head’. They just ignored that.”
Leeshon added, “Some of those letters in the film are exactly what he wrote.
“When I was writing a dialogue it was informed by those letters. We said early on we weren’t going to show the violence but we wouldn’t pull any punches in terms of racism.
“That’s how racists talk—we’re not going to pretend they don’t.”
The report found the prison service was plagued by institutional racism. It said the placing of Zahid in a cell with a known racist was not deliberate but a result of “shocking” errors.
An apparent breakdown in communications between different sections of Feltham meant that crucial information about Stewart was mislaid, not passed on or not acted upon.
Zahid had asked to move cells days before his murder, the report found, and Stewart was so dangerous he should not have shared a cell with anyone.
The probe said there was a “real possibility” that a sick game, “Gladiator” or “Colosseum”, was played at Feltham.
Unsuitable prisoners were put in the same cell to generate fights for the entertainment of prison officers, who would bet on the results. However, the report said that this had not occurred in Zahid’s case.
Duncan Keys, a Prison Officers Association official, tried to alert the Commission for Racial Equality in May 2004 to what had happened.
He told the inquiry that other union officials had effectively told him to “shut up”.
The film focuses on Stewart. Leeshon said, “For some people it will be a bone of contention with why we haven’t focused on Zahid.
There were some issues in terms of legalities. Prisoners talked about the gladiator games, but it was always disputed by the officials. So we didn’t do it.”
Stewart watched Romper Stomper, a film about Nazi violence, in Feltham. The filmmakers considered whether watching films about fascists can have an impact in real life.
Leeshon said, “Robert did watch it and he did do the killing. But I think he was going to kill someone at some point.
“Importantly there’s an element of control with him otherwise he would have been stabbing the prison guards. I think it was a timebomb that was at some point going to go off.”
Antony added, “We wanted to get that in there because he shouldn’t have been watching that film at Feltham. Some people find it hard to believe that someone involved in racial violence was watching that.”
Leeshon said, “We wondered if people would say our film is a propaganda film for the far right.
“But anyone watching it is not going to think that. This won’t convince a right wing moron not be a neo-Nazi either. But it’s not the kind of film you watch and don’t have an opinion.
“The day we had to do the murder part was very tough. I didn’t think I would get like that. But it sank into my head and hit me a little bit, and I found it quite hard that day.
“But the toughest thing for us was showing the family. They were the most important people.”
'Those who are trying to do a good job get battered down'
Zahid’s uncle, Imtiaz Amin, runs a trust set up in memory of his nephew. He told Socialist Worker, “Some of the momentum went after the inquiry. But there is more to come out about the case.”
An investigation carried out on behalf of Zahid’s family pointed to widespread abuse at Feltham.
More than 90 percent of ethnic minority inmates said they had either been subjected to abuse or witnessed it.
Many complained of beatings and bullying.
One former inmate said that when he arrived at the prison he was asked whether he was racist, anti-religious or homophobic.
He said “yes” because he thought he would get a single cell. He was put into a cell with two young black men.
Imtiaz said, “Last year the Inspector of Prisons reported that many of the recommendations from the inquiry into Zahid’s death hadn’t been made.
“Austerity and cuts have made this process much harder. After Zahid’s death they did spend money on new systems.
“But that’s no good if nobody is using them or is trained to carry them out.”
Some claim that Feltham has changed. But a former Feltham prison officer suggests otherwise.
Peter Hiett came forward this month to say inmates were ushered into cells padded with mattresses and told to fight out arguments to entertain the guards. They now call it “Fight Club”.
Hiett also said that in 2012 senior management set up a working party made up of ten prison officers.
It was called the Behaviour Management Group and Hiett said it had a very specific role—to fiddle the assault figures.
Imtiaz said, “We have repeatedly asked the Ministry of Justice to explain whether they have eradicated institutional racism. They have never been able to answer.
“What we now have is institutional discrimination across the board. Some 70-75 percent of young offenders have mental health problems.
“Those who are trying to do a good job get battered down if they speak out.”
Imtiaz has watched We Are Monster. He said, “The film is a stark reminder of what happened.
“It didn’t feel like you’re watching Zahid.
“But then a moment hits you in the heart, reminding me of the hole left by Zahid’s death that has never been filled.
“The film makes you angry with the authorities that Zahid can be forgotten. That’s why we need to keep raising the issue.”