HMIP Inspections of Belmarsh

The prison was last inspected in early 2018 and the full report can be read at the Ministry of Justice web site, just follow the links below. In their latest report the inspectors said:

“HMP Belmarsh in south east London is one of only three high security core local prisons in England and Wales. Probably the most high-profile prison in the UK, it held an extremely complex mix of men. There were young adults, and low-risk men similar to those held in other local prisons, but also over 100 with an indeterminate sentence, and those in custody for the most serious offences. The high security unit (HSU), in effect a prison within a prison, held some of the highest-risk prisoners in the country, adding a further layer of complexity. In addition, there were a large number of foreign national prisoners, others who needed to be protected because of their offence, and a small number requiring specific management arrangements because of their public and media profile. Meeting the demands and priorities of these various groups remained a hugely complicated task, and the results of this inspection need to be considered in this context.

At our last inspection in February 2015, we concluded that the prison was doing well to balance the need for high levels of security with running a safe and decent regime. We found some weaknesses in the regime, but generally thought the prison was well run. At this inspection, we found that the prison faced several new challenges, some of which were outside the governor’s direct control. For instance, there was a significant shortage of frontline staff. It was being addressed, but had resulted in a severely depleted daily regime and regular redeployment of specialist staff to ensure that even a basic period of daily unlocking time could be given. We considered this issue had affected all four of our healthy prison tests, but was particularly detrimental to the area of purposeful activity.

The funding for education and training was insufficient and meant the prison could not meet all prisoners’ needs. The number of work opportunities had declined since our last inspection; the provision overall was far too limited, and inevitablyattracted our lowest possible assessment. Once new staff arrive, which we were told would be in the near future, the prison’s leadership team would need to prioritise improving this aspect of the prison’s work.

The number of incidents of violence had increased since our last inspection, and some were serious. However, in some important respects, the increase was not as significant as in many other local prisons. The overall level of security at the prison ad helped, and the use of illegal drugs was less of a problem than we might have expected. Technology was being used to support efforts to manageviolence and drug use at the prison, for example through the body scanner being piloted in reception. Early results were encouraging, and I was told that staff welcomed the initiative, as did many prisoners who wanted to see the disruptive and dangerous trade in contraband disrupted. The prison had taken a zero-tolerance approach to poor behaviour, which we would support, but it needed to be developed to ensure management better understood the causes of violence and to offer more proactive work to address the underlying issues. Some good work was being done to identify men who were vulnerable, including those at risk of self-harm, and the prison had responded well to Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) recommendations following the three self-inflicted deaths that had taken place since our last visit. Nevertheless, some very complex men were held at the prison. They often presented with a combination of mental health issues, personality disorders and very challenging behaviour, and it was encouraging to be told that the high security and long-term directorate was reviewing how these men were being managed and considering what improvements could be made. Overall, despite some concerns, we considered that outcomes in safety remained reasonably good.

Many men were being held in overcrowded cells designed for two, but now holding three prisoners. We thought that this practice should stop, and that the prison’s operational capacity should be reduced to achieve this. The governor also pointed to significant failings with the Carillion facilities management contract, which he felt had made it difficult to keep the prison functioning efficiently. While most staff were decent and diligent, many prisoners told us that some were not, and we observed a minority of wing-based staff who were dismissive and disrespectful in their dealings with prisoners. There was a lack of leadership of equality and diversity work, which needed to be relaunched to ensure the considerable needs of prisoners with protected characteristics were understood and, where possible, met. Health care provision was strong, and both social and substance misuse work were excellent. However, overall we considered that outcomes for prisoners in the area of respect were not sufficiently good.

Children and families work was generally good, and the prison understood the rehabilitation needs of the complex population well. Staffing shortages were affecting the range and quality of work being undertaken by the offender management unit, and many men had little, if any, contact with their offender supervisor. In some cases, they even lacked an assessment or custody plan. Nevertheless, higher-risk and more complex men were being prioritised and public protection arrangements were very robust. Some good ‘through-the-gate’ support was being provided, and we considered outcomes in rehabilitation and release planning to be reasonably good.

In most respects, the prison continued to do a reasonable job managing an extremely complex population. However, some factors outside the control of the local management team were having a negative impact and we would urge HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to give the prison the support it needs to deliver more consistently positive outcomes for its prisoners. In addition, we have highlighted some areas where the prison does have direct control over the necessary improvements.

At the last inspection, we warned that while we had seen a number of improvements, many had not been embedded. At this inspection, progress had stalled in some of these areas, and in two of our tests we judged outcomes to have been poorer than last time. It has to be said that overall there had been a poor response to previous inspection recommendations, and so perhaps the lack of progress was not surprising. The influx of new staff offers real opportunities to address these deficits, but in such a complex prison, they will need to be supported and mentored to ensure they become the high-quality colleagues that the current leadership clearly want them to be. We hope this report will be used constructively to help with the work needed to improve this important prison.

Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM
April 2018
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Return to Belmarsh

To read the full reports follow the links below:

  • HMP Belmarsh (624.84 kB), Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Belmarsh (29 January – 9 February 2018)
  • HMP Belmarsh (PDF, 781.79 kB),Report on an announced inspection of HMP Belmarsh (2 – 6 February 2015)
  • HMP/YOI Belmarsh, Unannounced inspection of HMP/YOI Belmarsh (2-13 September 2013)
  • HMP Belmarsh, Unannounced inspection of HMP Belmarsh (6 – 15 April 2011)
  • HMP Belmarsh, Update to the report of the full unannounced inspection in April 2011 of HMP Belmarsh (31 August 2011)
  • HMP Belmarsh, Unannounced full follow-up inspection of HMP Belmarsh (27 April-1 May 2009)
  • HMP Belmarsh, Full announced inspection of HMP Belmarsh (8-12 October 2007)