HMIP Inspections of Belmarsh

The prison was last inspected in early 2015 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, located in south east London, is a high security core local prison and one of the highest profile and most complex prisons in England and Wales. At the time of this inspection it held 875 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. In addition, the high security unit (HSU) – separated from the rest of the prison by its own walls, gates and specific security measures – 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 and meeting the different needs of all of these groups, while maintaining the appropriate levels of security to provide reassurance to the public, was undeniably challenging.

At our last inspection in 2013, we considered that the prison had not got the balance right and that stringent security arrangements were over-bearing, 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 the rigorous and effective security required to manage the risks presented by prisoners while they were in the prison, and running a safe and decent establishment that could provide a range of purposeful and rehabilitative opportunities to reduce the risks they posed after release.

Levels of violence were not high but many prisoners still reported feeling unsafe and victimised. Young adults were disproportionately involved in violent incidents and Muslim prisoners and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds were more likely to report that they felt unsafe, and that they had been intimidated or threatened by staff, than the rest of the population. These issues may have been linked to gang and terrorism-related offences and behaviours in which these groups were over-represented, but the prison needed to do more to understand and address this.

The introduction of transition meetings for prisoners moving to Belmarsh from HMYOI Feltham was a positive initiative that could be replicated elsewhere. Vulnerable prisoners told us they felt safe but a small number of ‘duty of care’ men, who were at risk of retaliatory violence from other prisoners, were kept in what amounted to solitary confinement with an extremely impoverished regime.

Arrangements and support for prisoners at reception and in their first few days in the prison were good. The excellent safer custody team was playing a key role in keeping prisoners safe and, along with the chaplaincy, ensured there was good support for prisoners vulnerable to self-harm. The segregation unit environment was much improved from our previous inspection, but the regime offered was still too limited. The unit held some extremely challenging men and it was difficult for staff to establish effective relationships with them, but positive efforts were being made to help staff understand and address the behaviour of the men in their care. Men who were identified as being at risk of suicide or self-harm were rarely held in the unit. Use of force was not excessive and was now being well managed. In contrast to many other prisons, problematic drug use was low and substance use support services were very good.

It was encouraging to see that relationships between staff and prisoners were much improved from the last inspection. We observed staff engaging with prisoners appropriately and an ongoing training programme to encourage staff to interact more positively with prisoners was starting to show positive results. Nevertheless, this was work in progress and managers were realistic about the challenges they still faced in changing the staff culture of the prison. The environment was good and the prison was clean but many men still lived and ate their meals in poor, overcrowded double cells which held three people. Men complained to us about difficulties in getting responses to applications related to everyday issues and concerns; this was a source of real frustration, although the governor chaired prisoner consultation council was an excellent initiative which had started to give prisoners an important forum to raise concerns. In our surveys black and minority ethnic and Muslim prisoners, and those with disabilities, were less positive than others about their treatment and it was therefore disappointing to see that many aspects of equality and diversity support was underdeveloped. Managers had recognised this and had taken steps to improve work in this area. The chaplaincy was notably good. Health care provision was going through a period of change with a new provider imminent, but this had not distracted staff from providing reasonable care overall.

In the week this inspection began a new provider had taken over responsibility for learning and skills work. Provision had improved overall since our last visit to the prison, but from a very low base, and there was considerable further improvement required to develop it to an acceptable standard. The Prison Service should do more to learn lessons from the failure of the previous provider and the fact that it took so long for a change to occur. There were now broadly sufficient activities for prisoners to work part-time but the way the regime was organised meant that access to association and domestic periods was severely restricted for those who opted for full-time work and this acted as a disincentive. Time out of cells had improved from our previous inspection. There was an improved focus on developing the learning and skills provision offered, but the range was too narrow, and achievements in some key areas, and attendance at education, needed further improvement.

Resettlement work was strong with some excellent practical support, including good work around supporting contact with families and friends. Some aspects of offender management work needed to be improved but, as we see elsewhere, the national offender management model in which staff have dual offender supervisor and residential roles was being abandoned in favour of single, specific roles and this worked much better. Work with higher risk men was reasonable and public protection work was strong. Given the nature of the sentenced population, it was welcome that a good range of offending behaviour programmes was offered.

The HSU remained a limited environment and despite efforts to improve the regime offered, it was inferior to what was available in the rest of the prison. No evidence was offered to us as to why the men who were held in the HSU at the time of this inspection could not be managed safely on the main wings as similar men are managed in other prisons.

Overall, 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.


Nick Hardwick May 2015

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons”

Return to Belmarsh

To read the full reports follow the links below:

  • 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)