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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 March 2006, 15:11 GMT
Belmarsh: A 'complex' jail
Belmarsh prison
The jail is best known for housing high security inmates
The chief inspector of prisons has raised concerns about the treatment of Muslim inmates at Belmarsh jail in London.

The report highlights Belmarsh's high security and special security units, which house about 130 category A prisoners - men seen as highly dangerous to the public or national safety.

But Belmarsh is also home to more than 750 regular and remand prisoners sent from the Old Bailey, its feeder magistrates' courts in London, and other courts in south west Essex.

Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, noted that Belmarsh is a "complex" institution serving as both a local prison and a specialist jail.

Belmarsh holds "some extremely dangerous people" but also "a lot of burglars from south-east London", says its governor Claudia Sturt.

"The huge majority just want to be allowed to get on with serving their time in custody and all of the fuss that gets made is very unfair to them, unfair to our staff and it causes anxieties that are not necessary."

'Jail within a jail'

Belmarsh prison opened in April 1991 - nine years after work first began on its design - and sits on 31-hectares of reclaimed marshland in Thamesmead.

Costing 111m, it was the first new prison to be built in London since 1885.

But after its first inspection, 14 recommendations on improvements to security were made, with the then chief inspector of prisons saying Belmarsh had been planned before it had been decided what types of prisoner were to be held.

Some of the high security wing's first prisoners were convicted IRA bombers.

More recently Belmarsh has been home to a number of men detained without trial under emergency legislation brought in after the 11 September attacks on the US.

The securest section is the closely-guarded "jail within a jail" where the most dangerous inmates are housed.

Belmarsh has its own magistrates' court and is connected to Woolwich Crown Court by an underground tunnel.

Only one man is believed to have escape from the prison - in 1997 a suspected armed robber walked out of the jail after posing as his cellmate due for release.

'Positive strides'

Past inmates at Belmarsh have included radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza, Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, Soham murderer Ian Huntley and novelist Jeffrey Archer, who was jailed for perjury.

There are 915 beds, with about 60% of the cells being multi-occupancy and 40% single rooms.

Inmates have access to education, workshops, two gyms and a library and there are therapy and counselling groups.

Belmarsh prison
The prison now has a multi-faith chaplaincy team

New prisoners receive a health check on admission, and those with ongoing problems can attend daily clinics with a GP.

In May 2003, four mobile phones were discovered hidden by inmates raising fears criminal enterprises could be run from inside Belmarsh's walls.

At the time, the chief inspector of prisons recommended the jail's security department be restructured and that managers should supervise cell searches.

In her latest report, Ms Owers said there had been progress in drug treatment services and visitor facilities at Belmarsh, but made 127 recommendations for improvement.

She said there was insufficient activity time for inmates and said the prison illustrated, "in an acute form", the difficulties many jails face in managing an ethnic and religious minority population.

Despite the criticisms, Prison Service director general Phil Wheatley said the positive strides Belmarsh has been taking had been recognised.

The jail now has a multi-faith chaplaincy team, including an imam, and staff were being trained in the cultural needs of prisoners, who come from a wide mix of different ethnic backgrounds.

Belmarsh's governor says, like many prisons, bullying can be a problem but dismisses reports a gang claiming to have links to al-Qaeda has been operating inside.

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