The inside story of the prison known as Britain’s Gitmo — Analysis

We know very little about Belmarsh prison. This is the high-security secretive Belmarsh prison where Julian Assange is being held. 

This inspired the creation of a controversial underground gangster rapper album, which was illicitly recorded in its walls. It’s also known as Britain’s Guantanamo Bay and Hellmarsh.

HMP Belmarsh casts a huge shadow on British justice. Yet, despite those daunting monikers and damning reports of its conditions, it actually stands apart from most of Britain’s well-known prisons in that it is a relatively ‘modern’ building.

The other fortresses housing the nation’s most dangerous offenders are relics from Victorian times such as HMP Dartmoor in Devon, HMP Pentonville in North London and HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow.

Belmarsh, in contrast, was opened in 1991 and was the first new men’s jail built in the capital for more than a century. It’s located in a historic part of South-East London, the former Royal Arsenal, where all the British armed forces’ munitions were once manufactured, and is also minutes from the famous River Thames.

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The surrounding area is a mix of commercial and residential space, and there are no imposing traffic restrictions, so it’s easy for commuters to pass by without knowing it’s there.

They will be well aware that the prison has a history of dishonour. It is home to a number of prominent inmates who were held there throughout time. Currently, Julian Assange is by far Belmarsh’s most famous inhabitant, behind bars as he awaits a decision on his potential extradition to the United States.

Among Britain’s most notorious criminals who have been held there are armed robber Charles Bronson, who has become famous for threatening and attacking fellow prisoners. 

He was in Belmarsh when a hijacker from Iraq ran into him. Bronson reacted with anger and took two more hijackers from Iraq hostage along with an inmate who he later released. However, he held the Iraqis captive and ordered them to tickle him. He demanded that they be allowed to travel to Libya. Needless to say, that didn’t happen – and Bronson was handed an additional five years.

Others who have spent time in Belmarsh include Britain’s most famous Islamist terrorists Anjem Choudary and the former Imam of Finsbury Park mosque, hook-handed Abu Hamza, plus Ronnie Biggs who carried out the Great Train Robbery and escaped prison in 1965, spending the next 36 years on the run publicly in Australia and Rio de Janeiro before returning to Britain – and Belmarsh.

Hashem Abedi, brother of the Ariana Grande concert bomber – and who helped plan the attack – was another who started prison life in Belmarsh, where he assaulted a guard, explaining to a magistrate, “I did assault that filthy pig, but I don’t see any wrongdoing in that.” 

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Wayne Couzens has been added to the Belmarsh list. After being sentenced to a complete life sentence, he is unlikely to ever be free. This is the man who falsely held Sarah Everard under Covid-19 protocol and kidnapped her, raped, and then murdered.

Another not expected to ever emerge from behind Belmarsh’s walls is the notorious Stephen Port. He is better known as ‘The Grindr Killer’, after drugging, raping and murdering four men he had met online.

Port left the corpses near his East London home and called the emergency services to report it. Port’s crimes are being turned into a television series, which will soon be broadcast. 

Belmarsh houses the killer of a terrible crime committed only few miles away from Belmarsh. Lee Rigby was an ex-officio British Army soldier. He was attacked by two men with knives as he walked toward his Woolwich Barracks. 

The murderers – Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale – claimed they had to avenge the deaths of Muslims at the hands of the army, and handed horrified members of the public a written justification for the attack while asking onlookers to call the police to come and arrest them.

Adebolajo the ringleader was issued a complete life order. He is unlikely to be released from prison ever again. Adebowale, his partner was taken to Belmarsh and placed in a high-security mental hospital.

The cast also included Tommy Robinson (far-right leader) and Jeffrey Archer (best-selling novelist, former Conservative Party deputy chair), who were both sentenced to perjury. Archer even wrote of his experiences in the prison in a book revealingly called ‘Belmarsh: Hell’.

In the 910-capacity prison, this is a staggering list of names. But what has played an even greater role in cementing the prison’s fearsome image is the 48-capacity High Security Unit (HSU).

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To enter the HSU takes four minutes alone, as officers initially scrutinise an individual’s face via remote cameras. The unit has no two doors open at once. It is essentially a prison within a prison that houses some of Belmarsh’s most famous inmates.

One of the managers from each unit explained this to me. “We get a lot of high-profile prisoners, and prisoners who have the means and capacity to escape. This prisoner is very different from the one in a normal prison. The prisoners here have the means and ability to achieve the results prisoners somewhere else would not.”

HSU personnel can only be employed for up to three years. As such, there are less chances of staff sharing any personal information with men they guard. Because convicts have a knack for exploiting weaknesses, they are trained to recognize signs of manipulation and are given the opportunity to be able to identify them.

Two months is all it takes for a prisoner to spend in jail before they are moved. Even though they can go out, their cells are completely enclosed.

Misbehaviour isn’t tolerated. Rule breaking sees inmates either kept in their cell for 23 hours a day – normally it is 12 hours – or if things get worse, they go in ‘the box’. It is basically a small room without any windows or Perspex.

It’s an intense regime, but probably explains why no one has ever committed suicide inside the HSU, as the inmates simply don’t go long enough unsupervised to attempt it.

All other HSU prisoners are separated from the HSU guards and they never come in contact with any of their most controversial peers.

It means, in essence, that Belmarsh is a Matryoshka doll – a tough, cold environment for anyone who enters its doors that gets increasingly more repressive for those who have a profile.

There is one piece of light on the horizon in this bleak and soul-destroying environment, though, as Assange has been granted permission to marry his partner Stella Moris – a rare moment of celebration inside the prison. 

Moris said, “We have spoken to the Belmarsh chaplain services about it and they said they haven’t seen a wedding in Belmarsh for as long as they’ve been there, which is 12 years.”

It seems almost impossible to bring joy to Hellmarsh. But, considering the number of terrorists, murderers, and rapists in the area, Assange would be most likely to accomplish it.

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