Prisoners win legal fight over mistreatment

FIFTEEN former inmates at a Yorkshire jail have won a legal battle with the Government after claiming prison officers subjected them to racist abuse.

The Ministry of Justice agreed to settle out of court yesterday after the prisoners brought civil claims of racial and religious discrimination at Leeds Prison.

Nine alleged they had been assaulted by prison staff, while two more accused officers of failing to protect prisoners from assaults by other inmates.

Several were Muslims who complained they had been fed contaminated halal food, prep-ared with utensils that had been used to make non-halal food.

Some claimed white inmates were given preferential treatment and allowed to use the gym more often than prisoners from ethnic minorities.

The claims, relating to events at the prison between 2003 and 2005, were settled on the fourth day of a trial at Leeds County Court. The hearing had been expected to last six weeks.

Kate Maynard, of Hickman and Rose Solicitors, who represented the inmates, said the details of the settlement would remain confidential.

"The claimants are pleased with the settlement of their claims, while regretting that they had been left with no option but to take court action over complaints about their treatment," she said.

"They hope that bringing their complaints to court has been a catalyst for change in the treatment of non-white prisoners at HMP Leeds, so that the experience of non-white prisoners in HMP Leeds is now better than theirs was three to five years ago."

Ms Maynard said the alleged assaults on inmates by staff were "fairly minor", but the two in-mates who claimed to have been attacked by fellow prisoners were left with "lasting injuries".

Legal action began in 2004, following the murder of Leeds prisoner Shahid Aziz, who had his throat slashed by a white cellmate less than half an hour after they were locked up together.

Mr Aziz had been one of a group of prisoners who arranged a petition, signed by 65 inmates, complaining at the treatment they were receiving.

The petition, hidden under a snooker table, provided the catalyst for an investigation into practices at the prison. Mr Aziz's family asked Hickman and Rose to look into whether his murder could have been linked to it.

Ms Maynard said: "We started contacting prisoners on the petition and some of them asked for us to represent them because they had similar complaints...

"Then we had others come forward, so we were instructed by quite a number of prisoners, as many as 20 at one stage.

"That number later dropped to 15, but all of them will say that they took legal advice because they wanted to bring about change at the prison.

"Most of them are Muslim and most of them are Asian, but not all; one of the complainants was Algerian, but he was perceived by prison staff as Asian."

A Ministry of Justice spokes-man said it "did not take lightly the decision to settle these claims and did so only on strong legal advice.

"Had the matter continued to trial the cost to the taxpayer would have risen substantially and disproportionately to the value of the claims."

The spokesman said the Prison Service was working towards adhering to new race relations laws and had a team focusing totally on race equality issues.

In 2005 Prison Service managers carried out an emergency investigation which concluded that claims of "direct racism" at the prison were unfounded.