Inmates and guards reveal what life is like in one of Britain's toughest prisons
Disturbing accounts of assaults on prison officers at HMP Belmarsh have been given by former guards and inmates.
In one incident, prisoners are said to have swarmed on a victim at the high security jail and attacked him with socks filled with tuna cans.
In another, a guard purportedly had a knife held to his throat as two Category A inmates tried to escape as they were being taken to court.
The accounts follow Metro.co.uk’s reports about incidents of ‘serious violence’ at jails across England and Wales last year, which have also included cases of power struggles and unrest.
They are given in a new Channel 5 documentary and have been accompanied by a fresh claim that senior managers at Belmarsh are ‘appeasing’ dangerous behaviour rather than clamping down on it.
The former prisoners who have given insights of life at the men’s prison in south-east London include Babar Ahmad, who was detained in the UK for eight years without trial. In December 2013, he pleaded guilty in the US to allowing two articles supporting the Taliban to feature on a website he ran. He has since said he never supported any act of terrorism and now wants to build ties between the British government and Muslim communities.
The former inmate said: ‘Occasionally, you will get a prison officer who just wants to be an idiot, and this officer would be coming and he would be doing things like taking an extra milk cartoon because you are only meant to have one or taking an extra pillow or taking an extra blanket, so a group of prisoners decided to teach him a lesson.
‘They grabbed the officer, they took him inside the cell, they had tuna cans, which they put inside socks and they just battered him for about 10 minutes, they just battered him all over the place.’
In the last two years, there have been at least 182 assaults on staff, according to figures cited by the documentary makers.
Former prison officers also told how assaults on guards were a regular occurrence at the maximum-security jail in Thamesmead.
George Shipton told of another incident which came when two Category A prisoners managed to break free as they were being taken to court.
He said: ‘These two inmates got out of a secure van and ran through the streets of Bermondsey. [They were] a high-level category A.
‘They caught them, but one held a knife, a blade, to my mate’s throat.’
Woolwich Crown Court has been linked to the prison by a fortified underground tunnel since the justice centre became operational in 1993 and the system is considered escape-proof.
Kevin Felton another former prison officer, said: ‘Colleagues of mine were assaulted, and very badly assaulted as well, and it’s happening a heck of a lot more. In fact, a friend of mine who I worked with has had three lots of boiling water thrown over him.’
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) also says that violence as a whole across the prison estate is falling year-on-year.
However, concerns remain about the growing number of offenders convicted of terrorism offences and the approach being used to keep the peace at maximum security jails.
A reminder of the risks posed by some of the most dangerous inmates came in February, when Hashem Abedi, 24, who is serving life for the Manchester Arena bombing, was convicted for his part in an attack on a prison officer.
He took part in the assault along with Ahmed Hassan, 22, who is serving life for the Tube bombing at Parsons Green, and Muhammed Saeed, 23, who had talked about carrying out a knife attack at Speaker’s Corner in London.
Abedi received a sentence of three years and 10 months’ imprisonment, which was added to the record 55-year minimum term he was already serving. Hassan and Saeed were each handed three-year jail terms.
Ian Acheson, a former prison governor and counter-terrorism expert, told filmmakers that ‘determined’ offenders serving time for terror offences were being housed near ‘credulous young men searching for meaning’.
He said: ‘Whether you have gone into a place like Belmarsh already radicalised, or whether you’ve walked in and you become radicalised, it’s plain to me that this is a place where there’s ample opportunity for people to target vulnerable people and convert them to an ideological cause.’
Mr Acheson further told Metro.co.uk this week that he has red-flagged his concerns about the jail’s power balance appearing to slip towards ‘violent and dangerous individuals’ as staff try to keep the peace.
The author and researcher said: ’Some months ago I specifically alerted ministers to a number of allegations, compelling in detail, that senior managers at HMP Belmarsh were appeasing dangerous behaviour rather than supporting their staff to robustly challenge it.
‘Belmarsh is an incredibly complex place to run but one thing is certain; if staff cede ground to violent and dangerous individuals because they lack confidence leaders will back their actions up.
‘Everyone, including future victims, is put at risk. In such places safety, order and control is easily lost and very hard to recover.’
A series of incidents at British jails between 2020 and 2021 included teachers being taken hostage and a prison officer being beaten senseless, Metro.co.uk has previously revealed.
The MoJ maintains that violence is falling in jails and it has given prison officers body-worn cameras, police-style restraints and PAVA incapacitant spray to improve safety.
In January, a spokesperson said that ‘assaults on staff will always be punished’ and £100 million had been spent on bolstering security across the UK prison estate.
The MoJ did not want to comment on the new documentary or Mr Acheson’s warnings.
*HMP Belmarsh: Maximum Security airs at 9pm on Wednesday, May 18, Channel 5
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