Prison news / FRFI 238 Apr/May 2014

Belmarsh – too high security

On 21 March the prisons inspectorate published its report of an inspection of Belmarsh prison in September 2013. The report states – as everyone who has had any contact with Belmarsh knows to be the case – that the massive security surrounding the small group of prisoners contained in the high security unit has a disproportionate impact on the rest of the prison population.

Belmarsh holds 800 prisoners, most of whom are relatively low risk; many are on remand or recently sentenced. Of the approximately 50 Category A prisoners, a small number are designated ‘high risk’ and a smaller number still ‘exceptional high risk’.

Inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • The special unit regime did not meet operating standards and failed to provide reasonable levels of stimulation and engagement.
  • Special secure unit prisoners could not access any education ‘for security reasons’: a statement the inspectorate ‘did not understand or accept’.
  • Use of force had reduced but was still greater than in comparable prisons.
  • There had been three self-inflicted deaths since 2011.
  • Purposeful activity was very poor quality; prisoners had limited time out of cell and over half were locked in their cells during the working day.
  • Learning and skills were inadequate in every respect, with underused places, no vocational training and poor educational achievements.
  • Offender management and resettlement services were poorly coordinated and supervised, with a backlog of risk assessments.
  • There were too many cases where three prisoners were held in cramped cells designed for two.

Books for prisoners – an ongoing fight over many years

As FRFI goes to press, the mainstream media is awash with stories about a ban on prisoners receiving books: authors are up in arms, well-known former prisoners are being interviewed by broadsheet newspapers about how reading got them through their time behind bars, and the Howard League, which initiated the frenzy, is running a petition and twitter campaign to publicise the issue.

It is very refreshing to see prisoners’ rights and treatment attract such publicity, and excellent news that many well-known writers are keen to have their work distributed in prison. Hopefully this will result in it becoming easier to get reading material into prison.

There are, however, two major misconceptions being repeated throughout the current publicity on this issue: firstly, that the new, more restrictive version of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEPS) brought in by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling in December 2013 in Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 completely prevents prisoners from receiving books by post; and, secondly, that until the introduction of PSI 30/2013, prisoners’ friends, relatives and supporters of prisoners were able to send books and publications in without hindrance.

FRFI readers will be aware that for over 30 years we have waged a continuous battle against attempts by the prison authorities to prevent our newspaper from being sent to prisoners. We also send books, including those published by Larkin Publications, and we have repeatedly had to complain or threaten legal action to ensure this material gets through. On many occasions we have faced direct and overt political censorship; however equally frequently refusals to let books and newspapers into prison have been couched in bureaucratic terms, often with reference to the IEPS. This scheme did not start in 2013, but in 1995, when then Home Secretary Michael Howard determined that everything accorded to prisoners beyond the most basic entitlement should be a ‘privilege’ to be ‘earned’. From then on, family members could no longer post in books and other items without special dispensation or making a huge fuss; instead prisoners were compelled to save up money in their prison accounts and purchase them from ‘approved suppliers’ designated by the prison.

Hopefully the current campaign, though misguidedly focused on the latest amendments to IEPS and not at the whole invidious scheme, will have a positive effect on prisoners’ access to books and publications, and will compel the government to reverse years of censorship and interference.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014


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