Belmarsh much improved but more to do

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HMP Belmarsh was much improved, but progress was not yet embedded and some major challenges remained, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons. Today he published the report of an announced inspection of the high security core local prison in south east London.

HMP Belmarsh held men serving a range of sentences. Some were relatively low risk prisoners with the range of needs typical to other local prisons, but a significant minority had been sentenced to long, determinate sentences, and over 100 men were serving indeterminate sentences or life. The high security unit (HSU) held a small number of the most high risk prisoners. The prison had recently begun to hold remanded young adults who would previously have been held in young offender institutions. This was a complicated population to manage.

The last inspection in 2013 found that stringent security arrangements were impacting disproportionately on all prisoners held, regardless of the risks they posed. At this inspection it was encouraging to see that the prison had made significant progress in striking a better balance between security required to manage risks presented by prisoners, and running a safe and decent establishment that could provide purposeful and rehabilitative opportunities to reduce the risks they posed after release.

Inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • arrangements and support for prisoners at reception and in their first few days at the prison were good;
  • the safer custody team and chaplaincy ensured good support for prisoners vulnerable to self-harm;
  • the segregation unit environment was much improved;
  • problematic drug use was low and substance use support services were very good;
  • relationships between staff and prisoners were much improved;
  • resettlement work was strong, with some excellent practical support;
  • time out of cells had improved; and
  • public protection work was strong and a good range of offending behaviour programmes was offered.

However, inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • although levels of violence were not high, many prisoners still reported feeing unsafe and victimised;
  • young adults were disproportionately involved in violent incidents;
  • Muslim prisoners and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds were more likely to report that they felt unsafe and the prison needed to do more to understand and address this;
  • many men still lived and ate their meals in poor, overcrowded double cells which held three people;
  • further improvement was required to develop learning and skills to an acceptable standard;
  • the HSU remained a limited environment and more thought needed to be given to managing those men on the main wings; and
  • some aspects of offender management work needed to improve.

Nick Hardwick said:

“HMP Belmarsh had much improved since our last visit. Outcomes were better in all key areas and this had been achieved without compromising security. Prisoners and staff we spoke to were positive about the changes that were being made. However, many of the improvements were recent and not yet fully embedded, and some major challenges remained. The prison needed to do more to understand levels of violence and fears about safety, especially among minority groups. Although learning, skills and work was improving and a new provider was starting work, there was much to do, particularly in terms of expanding the range of activities to meet the needs of the population. Similarly, while deficiencies in offender management had been recognised and were being addressed, improvements were still at a very early stage. The role and function of the high security unit needed a fundamental review. We found that the prison had credible plans to address all these issues and embed the progress that had already been made. We hope this report will assist with that process.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive Officer of the National Offender Management Service, said:

I am pleased that the Chief Inspector highlights the significant progress made at Belmarsh over the last 18 months.”

“The prison holds some very dangerous individuals but the Governor and his team have worked hard to improve outcomes for prisoners whilst maintaining the security levels necessary to prevent escape and keep the public safe.”

“As the report makes clear, there is more to do – particularly in expanding purposeful activity and improving education outcomes.”

“The Governor has clear plans in place to further develop the prison and will use the recommendations in this report to support that process.”

Read the Report here