Britain’s Toughest Prison- HMP Belmarsh


History of HMP Belmarsh

Belmarsh was built on the site of the former Royal Arsenal in Woolwich and was opened in 1991. Belmarsh is next to Woolwich Crown Court and is used for high profile cases, including those related to terror.

HMP Belmarsh earned the and Britain’s Guantanamo Bay in 2001 when it was used to detain a number of people indefinitely without charge or trial under the provisions of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. However, it was later ruled that was against the human rights act and therefore discontinued.

HMP Belmarsh is Britain’s most notorious prison, once earning the name ‘Britain’s Guantanamo Bay’ due to the number of terrorists and extremists it held behind its walls, prisoners such as Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada and Salafist preacher Anjem Choudary.  Belmarsh is one of only three high-security core local prisons in England and Wales and is probably the most famous prison in the UK.

HMP Belmarsh is a relatively young prison, it was opened in April 1991 as a local prison serving the Central Criminal Court and Magistrates Courts in SE London primarily. In addition, the establishment serves Crown and Magistrates’ Courts in South West Essex. It has an operational capacity of 910 and accepts prisoners from local courts but also holds high-security Category A prisoners.

The prison holds an extremely complex mix of inmates, young adults, 100 with indeterminate sentences, serious crime offenders, a high number of foreign nationals, those kept in the high-security uni those who need to be protected because of their offence and lastly those who have highly visible media profile.

In 2010 HMP Isis, a young offenders institution was opened with the perimeter of Belmarsh.

The prison has a mixture of approximately 60% multi-occupancy cells and 40% single cells, distributed mainly across 4 residential units. The prison is overcrowded, and many of the double occupancy cells have three inmates in them. The cells are spread over four residential units. There is a specialist high-security unit in the Belmarsh prison complex for Britain’s most dangerous and high profile prisoners.

Considering the complex mix of the prison population, HMP Belmarsh got a relatively good inspection report in June 2018. Her Majesties Chief Inspector of Prisons said it was reasonably well run and was dealing with many matters without its control, such as a serious lack of staff on the wings.

An Interesting Fact

Ten years ago there was an archaeological dig in the prison and a 6,000 year old track-way was discovered! It is the second oldest track-way in Northern Europe after the one in Glastonbury.

High-Security Unit

Within HMP Belmarsh is a High-Security Unit holding up to 48 prisoners.  The prisoners are those of greatest risk of escape, terrorism, radicalising other prisoners or continuing organised crime from within the prison. The unit is considered to be totally escape proof and has so far lived up to its name.

The HSU was initially used almost exclusively to house IRA prisoners. But since then it has held KGB agents, al-Qa’ida terrorists and even Charles Bronson, who had a whole spur to himself.

The inmates do not mix with the main prison population, food is taken into the unit, and it has its own exercise yard and gym. Halal meals are available for Muslim prisoners, and a full-time imam was recruited for the jail in 2002, with the prison chapel being converted into a mosque each Friday.

In the last inspection report it was said the role of the HSU was unclear, “and given the intensity of the custodial experience, which meant prisoners could not exercise self-determination, the regime and governance arrangements needed to be improved”.

Hall of Notoriety

Julian Assange

Julian Paul Assange, an Australian editor and investigative journalist who founded Wikileaks in 2006. In 2010 Wikileaks published a series of links form Chelsea Manning on the Collateral Murder video, Afghanistan war logs, and Cablegate.  Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy for 8 years until revoked his claim due to his escalating bizarre behaviour.

Stephen John Port

Port, 44, is a British serial killer and rapist. He killed at least four men and committed multiple rapes. He received a whole life order in November 2016, this means he will never be edible for parole. Port met his victims online in gay social networks. He used gamma-Hydroxybutyric Acid a date rape drug, adding it to drinks given to his victims, raped them, and murdered four of them in his flat in Barking.

Abu Hamza

Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, also known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, the Hook Hand or simply Abu Hamza, is an Egyptian cleric who was the imam of Finsbury Park Mosque in London, England, where he preached Islamic fundamentalism and militant Islamism. He was charged with sixteen offences for inciting violence and racial hatred and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. On 5 October 2012, after an eight-year legal battle, he was extradited from the UK to the United States to face terrorism charges.  On 19 May 2014, Hamza was found guilty of eleven terrorism charges by a federal jury in Manhattan and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole..

Ronnie Biggs

Ronald Arthur “Ronnie” Biggs was one of the Great Train Robbers and lived as a fugitive for 36 years, mainly in Brazil, after he escaped from Wandsworth prison in 1965.

In 2001 he announced his return to the UK and upon said: “My last wish is to walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter.”

He was imprisoned at Belmarsh until 2007, then transferred to Norwich in July 2007 to live on a unit for elderly inmates..

Jeffrey Archer

The former Conservative MP wrote about his time in Belmarsh in the first volume of A Prison Diary and used the setting extensively in his novel A Prisoner of Birth.

He was jailed for perjury and perverting the course of justice in 2001 over a libel case against the Daily Star in 1987 but served just weeks before he was transferred to Wayland prison in Norfolk.

An established novelist, he has sold 250 million copies of his books.

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