HMP Belmarsh - too much security, too little purposeful activity

The focus on security that HMP Belmarsh needed for its small group of high-risk prisoners was having a disproportionate impact on its more mainstream population, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons. Today he published the report of an unannounced inspection of the south east London jail.

HMP Belmarsh holds up to 800 prisoners, most of whom are relatively low risk individuals on remand or recently sentenced. Belmarsh also holds approximately 50 category A prisoners, a number of whom are considered particularly high risk, and a very small number of whom are considered the highest security prisoners in the country. Most of the high risk prisoners are held within a specialist high security facility. The task and challenge at Belmarsh was to ensure it met the needs of public safety by keeping in custody a small number of high risk individuals, while at the same time addressing the needs of the vast majority of mainstream prisoners who would inevitably be returning to the local community. This inspection suggests the prison has more to do to get this balance right.

The inspectorate surveys the views and perceptions of the prison’s population. The findings of the survey at Belmarsh were concerning and significantly more negative than surveys from comparable prisons. Well over half of prisoners said they had felt unsafe during some stage of their time at Belmarsh and nearly a third felt unsafe at the time of the survey. Most measures of victimisation and intimidation in the survey were worse than at comparable prisons. Inspectors’ actual observations were sometimes better than these perceptions suggested, but the prison needed to understand these messages more fully.

Inspectors were also concerned to find that:

  • many additional security measures were only needed for a tiny number of prisoners on the basis of their security categorisation, but security could become a catch-all explanation for weaknesses and inadequacies in outcomes for lower category prisoners;
  • use of force had reduced but was still greater than in comparable prisons;
  • there had been three self-inflicted deaths at the prison since its last inspection in 2011 and there were some weaknesses in the way those at risk were managed;
  • segregation in the main part of the prison was not used excessively but the facility was poor;
  • the small segregation unit in the special unit was austere and the prisoners held there experienced a significant level of isolation;
  • just 60% of prisoners felt staff treated them with respect, significantly lower than in comparator prisons, and some staff seemed disengaged;
  • purposeful activity was very poor quality, prisoners had limited time out of cell and inspectors found over half of all prisoners locked in their cells during the working day;
  • learning and skills were inadequate in every respect – with underused places, no vocational training and poor educational achievements; and
  • offender management and resettlement services were poorly coordinated and supervised, with a backlog of risk assessments.

However, inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • arrangements to manage the reception and induction of prisoners into the prison were reasonable, despite some gaps;
  • structures to tackle violence and bullying were good;
  • recorded levels of violence were not excessive;
  • work to promote equality and diversity was encouraging, notably for foreign national prisoners and those with disabilities and the prison had begun some useful work to prepare for the arrival of a few young adult population;
  • a new health provider was making some improvements and mental health provision was good;
  • public protection arrangements were sound and there was some reasonable work with indeterminate sentence prisoners; and
  • the prison was working on an encouraging project with London Probation Trust which aimed to assist the reintegration of some difficult prisoners with identified personality disorders.

Nick Hardwick said:

“HMP Belmarsh has the most important and difficult task of any prison in the country. It has to manage a small number of the most dangerous men the prison system holds alongside a large population who present the typical needs and challenges to be found in any local prison. We found that the focus on the security required by the first group sometimes inevitably, but sometimes unnecessarily, impeded the work that needed to be done to ensure that the main population was held safely and decently, and prepared for release so that the risk they would reoffend was reduced. Too many of these men passed their time in the prison with little purposeful to occupy them and too much of the activity that was on offer was of insufficient quality. The security required for the most dangerous men was generally applied proportionately but more needed to be done to provide assurance that engagement and supervision were consistently of the level required.”

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

“Belmarsh plays a key role in the prison estate and is tasked with managing some of the most challenging, violent and complex prisoners in the country while at the same time providing effective support for mainstream offenders.

“I’m pleased that the inspection concluded that security for the highest risk offenders was proportionate, that public protection arrangements were sound and that structures to tackle violence and bullying were good.

“Maintaining the right balance between security and providing effective rehabilitative opportunities for the majority of prisoners is important and we accept that there is more work to be done to get this right. The Governor and his team will use this report to improve arrangements for the mainstream population and in particular will work with the Skills Funding Agency to tackle the unacceptable learning and skills provision.”

Notes to Editors:
1. Read the report.
2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
3. This unannounced inspection was carried out from 2-13 September 2013.
4. HMP Belmarsh is a local male prison with a high secure unit.
5. Please contact Jane Parsons at HMI Prisons press office on 020 3681 2775 or 07880 787452 if you would like more information or to request an interview.