Belmarsh 'at full stretch' with Muslims on terror charges

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The Independent Online

One of Britain's highest-profile jails is at "full stretch" to deal with the number of Muslim inmates facing terrorism charges, the Chief Inspector of Prisons warned today.

Anne Owers raised fears about the treatment of Muslim prisoners at Belmarsh maximum security jail in London - including the men accused of the 21 July attempted bombings.

She said prison officers did not understand Muslim inmates' social and religious behaviour.

Ms Owers also voiced concerns that four remand prisoners on terror charges were allowed to associate only in pairs and were banned from communal Friday prayers.

Another unnamed inmate facing terror charges was kept in a separate secure unit with a "dedicated group of staff", her report revealed.

The chief inspector said: "The prison's high security and special security units were at full stretch, holding among others those suspected of the failed suicide bomb attempts of July."

It is believed to be the first time the chief prisons inspector has referred to specific prisoners in a report.

About 100 of Belmarsh's 900 inmates are Muslim, with high-profile terror suspects held in the high security "jail within a jail" at the south east London site.

At the time of the inspector's visit last October, four terror suspects were held in a special secure unit in one spur of the high security unit.

They were under a "special programme" of supervised access to shared facilities, allowed to associate only in pairs and were not allowed to attend Friday prayers with others.

Nine standard-risk Category A inmates - including eight awaiting trial for the July 21 attempted bombings - were on another spur of the unit.

There was also an additional special secure unit holding one man facing terror charges.

He had a cell, a small multi-gym, separate visits suite and a dedicated group of staff, but the unit provided a "very poor quality of life", inspectors said, and called for a review of his accommodation arrangements.

In all, there were five Category A inmates classed as "exceptional risk" - the only prisoners in the country to be in this highest category.

Ms Owers said: "It is vital that prisons understand the prisoners they hold, and can assess the relationships between and within different groups of prisoners, in order to be able to manage them safely.

"We did not believe this was the case for staff in relation to Muslim prisoners at Belmarsh, in spite of the efforts of a competent and trusted imam."

Ms Owers said there was "insufficient staff understanding of (Muslims') interactions and needs".

The report said: "Managers and staff believed that some younger Muslim prisoners were intimidating others into what was essentially a gang-related, rather than religious, affiliation.

"On the other hand, young Muslim prisoners were concerned that ordinary social and religious behaviour on their part was misinterpreted by staff as being problematic."

The report went on: "Although Afro-Caribbean prisoners did not think there was overt staff racism, Muslim prisoners felt their treatment by staff had worsened since the recent terrorist incidents.

"There were reports of intimidatory behaviour within the Muslim prisoner population not coming to the attention of staff because of poor staff-Muslim prisoner relationships."

Belmarsh is a complex prison which serves as a local prison and a specialist maximum security jail, Ms Owers noted.

Overall, the prison was "making progress", she said, but she made 127 recommendations for improvement.

Prison Service director general Phil Wheatley said: "The chief inspector acknowledges some of the positive strides Belmarsh has taken since the last inspection.

"Excellent working relationships between the multi-faith chaplaincy team, staff and managers enables them to work together to ensure the diverse faiths and cultural needs of prisoners can be met.

"What is important for Belmarsh is not to be diverted by issues specific to a small number of prisoners but to concentrate on maximising the quality of life and successful resettlement for all."

He added: "The prison is undergoing a comprehensive performance improvement and review to achieve this and I am encouraged by the determination amongst staff at all levels to succeed."

Commenting on facilities for Muslim inmates, Prisons Handbook editor Mark Leech said: "Despite their alleged serious offences, these prisoners have the same rights as anyone else.

"They have not been convicted of any offences yet and we need to be vigilant that we do not create our own Guantanamo Bay inside Belmarsh prison."

A Prison Service spokeswoman said: "Belmarsh takes the issue of faith very seriously. In a prison where 17 different religious faiths are represented, great care is taken to ensure that staff are aware of the cultural and religious issues affecting prisoners.

"The multi-faith centre at Belmarsh is an excellent resource that is used and enjoyed by many prisoners and representatives of all faiths.

"The chaplaincy team includes two imams who work hard to create and maintain a positive environment for worship.

"At the time of the inspection, four Category A prisoners were considered to be an exceptional risk and were undergoing an assessment process.

"Following this rigorous risk assessment the four prisoners were allowed to take part in communal worship."