Prison inspectors have described prisoners’ frustration at HMP Belmarsh as their time out of cells on ‘association’ was frequently cut due to staff shortages. The review by HM Inspectorate of Prisons follows the last full inspection of the high-security prison carried out in November 2021 which reported that less than one in four prisoners (23%) were engaged in out-of-cell purposeful activity and, whilst most prisoners had 45-50 minutes outdoor exercise a day, some got as little as 30 minutes. Outcomes for prisoners in relation to purposeful activity had been rated ‘poor’, with the majority of inmates spending 23 hours or longer locked up in their cells. Association had not been available at all in the main prison since March 2020 when lockdown was imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the recent follow-up inspection, Chief Inspector Charlie Taylor noted that some improvement had been made, with most prisoners now receiving 45-60 minutes of exercise and up to 1.5 hours of association time per day. However, time out of cell was judged to be ‘still inadequate’. Despite assurances that prisoners would receive the increased association time, this was ‘regularly curtailed to an hour, mainly due to a shortage of staff’, which was ‘causing frustration’ among prisoners. While both the gym and the library had reopened and social visits had resumed, prisoners were having to choose between these activities and on-wing association, as they took place at the same time. Activity time was also affected by restrictions on the mixing of different housing blocks in an effort to minimise violence and conflict.
This latest review also outlined concerns about data collection in the prison, noting that ‘the prison’s data were too poor to show how many prisoners were engaged in activities on any given day, or how frequently individual prisoners were in activity’. The lack of effective collection, analysis, and use of data was found to be a problem across several key areas, including safety, violence reduction, use of force by staff, self-harm, and resettlement post-imprisonment.
Overall, the review judged that out of the 10 recommendations made in November, ‘good progress’ had been made in just one area, and ‘reasonable progress’ in seven. ‘No meaningful progress’ had been made in two areas: release planning and rehabilitation, and inadequate public protection phone monitoring—risking ‘potentially serious implications’. While attempts had been made to address most of the 10 recommendations, Taylor concluded that advances in relation to several objectives were ‘recent and fragile’.