Trial of body scanner in HMP Belmarsh 'encouraging'

By agency reporter
June 13, 2018

An X-ray body scanner being piloted at HMP Belmarsh in south-east London resulted in the discovery of weapons, mobile phones and drugs on prisoners and contributed toward a reduction in drugs-fuelled violence, prisons inspectors found.

Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons, said an inspection of Belmarsh, one of the UK’s most high-profile prisons, in January and February 2018, noted that incidents of violence had increased since the previous inspection in 2015, 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 had helped, and the use of illegal drugs was less of a problem than we might have expected.”

Technology, Mr Clarke added, “was being used to support efforts to manage violence 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 report noted: “Staff were trialling a new body scanner in reception, which used low-level X-rays to identify prisoners concealing unauthorised articles. It had resulted in some finds of mobile phones, weapons and drugs, which would not have been identified during a strip-search. The initiative was encouraging and promoted respect and decency – the dedicated search team had decided to use the body scanner instead of requiring prisoners to squat routinely during strip-searches.”

HMP Belmarsh is one of only three high-security local prisons in England and Wales and holds an “extremely complex mix of men”, including young adults and low-risk men, 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”, holds some of the highest-risk prisoners in the country. There are also a large number of foreign national prisoners and some with a high media or public profile.

Inspectors found in 2018 that the prison faced several new challenges compared with 2015, some of which were outside the governor’s direct control. For instance, “there was a significant shortage of frontline staff.” This was being addressed, Mr Clarke said, “but (it) 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.” This was detrimental to the area of purposeful activity, one of the Inspectorate’s key ‘healthy prison’ tests covering training and education. Time out of cells for prisoners had “declined significantly” since 2015. The funding for education and training was also found to be insufficient and meant the prison could not meet all prisoners’ needs.

Inspectors found “some good work” to identify men who were vulnerable, including those at risk of self-harm. Some men at Belmarsh had “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 (of HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS)) was reviewing how these men were being managed and considering what improvements could be made.”

Inspectors, however, were concerned by some of the accommodation, with cases of “claustrophobic and extremely uncomfortable” cells designed for two but holding three men. Mr Clarke said: “We thought that this practice should stop, and that the prison’s operational capacity should be reduced to achieve this.”

Overall, Mr Clarke said: “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 HMPPS to give the prison the support it needs to deliver more consistently positive outcomes for its prisoners. 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… 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.”

Belmarsh is a category A prison situated in Thamesmead, South East London. It opened in 1991, and was the first adult prison to be built in London since 1874.

* Read the full inspection report here

* HM Inspectorate of Prisons https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/

[Ekk/6]

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