More than half of all prisoners at a high-security men’s prison in south-east London spent 23 hours a day locked in their cells over the summer while the education block, gym and library stood empty and was unused for more than a year. The inspection of HMP Belmarsh revealed that 52% of the 675 prisoners between July and August this year had an hour or less a day out of cells and, in some cases, missed a daily shower.
The chief prison inspector Charlie Taylor noted that the prison had ‘finally’ reinstated some face- to-face education ‘though access was limited, and some prisoners were getting taught through their cell doors during the lunchtime lockdown’. In segregation, about one in 10 prisoners (12%) told inspectors they had a daily shower.
‘Only 23% prisoners were engaged in out-of-cell purposeful activity. Most prisoners had around 45-50 minutes outdoor exercise each day, although some got as little as 30 minutes. Association had not been available in the main prison since the restricted regime commenced in March 2020. The library remained closed and there were no developed plans to reopen it. Unlike in other prisons, the gym was still closed.’
‘Urgent action’ was required to tackle rising levels of self-harm and the prison’s leadership team had ‘not paid sufficient attention’ to the issue. Since the last inspection, the rate of self-harm was four times higher and there had been four self-inflicted deaths. Inspectors highlighted the need for further work to ‘improve the culture in the prison’. ‘Many staff routinely failed to collect or turn on body- worn cameras and we saw officers who were supposed to be supervising the most vulnerable prisoners, sitting reading the paper,’ inspectors noted.
Levels of violence had risen as well and, despite COVID-19 restrictions limiting time out of cell, one in four prisoners said they felt unsafe. In the previous 12 months, there was 341 recorded violent incidents, compared to 274 in the same period prior to inspection. It was also highlighted that 50% of prisoners said they had experienced either verbal or physical victimisation by staff.