Allegations of racist violence by officers against prisoners in isolation at HMP Belmarsh

Aerial view of HM Prison Isis and a section of HM Prison Belmarsh (on the right) in Thamesmead West, south-east London, shortly before landing at London City Airport
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Content warning: This article discusses racist violence and abuse.

Campaigners have been calling out racist harrassment and attacks by officers at HMP Belmarsh.

Belmarsh is a high-security prison in south east London. It has faced criticism from HM Inspectorate of Prisons for the amount of force used against prisoners, and for the numbers of suicides that have taken place within its walls.

In the past few weeks, allegations of racism and violence committed by prison officers at HMP Belmarsh have emerged. Several of these incidents reportedly involve the same officer.

“Blatant racism”

On 2 July, the campaign group Anti-Carceral Solidarity (ACS) reported an alleged attack by at least five officers against a Black prisoner in HMP Belmarsh’s segregation unit. The prisoner was allegedly left bleeding on the floor, without medical attention.

ACS told The Canary that a similar alleged assault on a prisoner – involving at least one of the same officers – had occurred the previous week. On that occasion, the police had reportedly been called.

ACS said that both of the attacks were reported to them after being overheard by another prisoner who is held in the same segregation unit.

Read on...

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When we reached out to the Ministry of Justice they claimed that the allegations were not true.

“Harassment”

The same officer who is alleged to have been involved in the attacks is also accused of harassing and racially abusing long-term prisoner Kevan Thakrar. ACS says that the officer in question:

has been harassing, and racially abusing Kevan Thakrar in the HMP Belmarsh segregation unit through intentionally depriving him of sleep by shouting racist abuse at him during the night and by being physically aggressive during searches.

ACS said that the abusive behaviour escalated on 19 June, when the officer:

tried to provoke Kev into a physical fight by conducting the pat-down search aggressively. When Kev didn’t reply, [the officer] pushed him over and 7 officers rushed into his cell.

A letter-writing campaign has been organised in support of Kevan:

When we contacted the MoJ for a response to Kevan’s allegations, they again flatly denied that any of them were true. This isn’t surprising as the MoJ have denied every allegation we have ever put to them. The Canary has regularly been writing about racism and violence inside the prison system since 2020, and all we have ever received is outright denial. It’s easy to brush aside complaints when there are precious few people willing to amplify prisoners’ voices, and when the prison ‘service’ can almost completely control prisoners’ access to the outside world. This culture of impunity is increased exponentially when prisoners are kept in isolation in segregation units, with very few witnesses to speak out against the violence of the officers.

Closing ranks

According to ACS, HMP Belmarsh has also denied all of Kevan’s allegations. But this, it says, also comes as no surprise:

The campaigners say that the complaints process is “nothing more than propaganda”, and ask how prisoners are expected to protect themselves from abuse if their complaints go unheard:

Allegations of “intentional triggering of PTSD”

Kevan has suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) since he was attacked by officers in 2010. On that occasion he physically defended himself against the attack. He was later acquitted of assaulting the officers by a jury, on the grounds of self-defence. However – despite the acquittal – the prison service has punished him by keeping him in conditions of extreme isolation ever since.

These shocking pictures show Kevan’s injuries after the 2010 attack:

Kevan Thakrar’s injuries after the 2010 attack

ACS told us that the prison officers’ actions had amounted to what they saw as the intentional triggering of Kevan’s PTSD:

the prison is well aware that Kevan has severe and complex post traumatic stress and they’re aware of his triggers, because they’re meant to make allowances for them, but obviously they don’t and it really has seemed like – for the last six weeks – that staff have intentionally been triggering his PTSD in the way that they’ve been treating him.

It said that the kind of abuse that Kevan and the other prisoners have experienced is “regular” in the segregation unit, and that:

it seems like it’s getting more and more frequent. And officers are always targeting almost exclusively people of colour and Black prisoners. And it’s literally something they know they can get away with, and the governor will back them up

Segregation: just another name for solitary confinement

The kind of attacks referred to in ACS’ allegations are routinely enabled by the dehumanisation of prisoners within the UK’s segregation units.

In 2015, a ruling from the UK’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of Shahid, a prisoner who had appealed against being kept in solitary confinement for five years. The court’s judgement noted that:

An interim report submitted to the UN General Assembly in August 2011… expressed particular concern about prolonged solitary confinement (or segregation, as it was also termed), which he defined as solitary confinement in excess of 15 days. He noted that after that length of time, “according to the literature surveyed, some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible

According to ACS:

“Segregation” is a euphemism for solitary confinement – spending almost 24 hours alone in a cell every day, deprived of all sensory stimulation. Spending over 2 weeks in solitary confinement is reported to cause lasting harm.

Long-term solitary confinement is a breach of United Nations rules:

Being held in solitary confinement for more than [15] days is a breach of the UN Mandela Rules on the treatment of prisoners.

However, prisoners are routinely held in excess of 15 days. In fact, it’s common for UK prisoners to be held in segregation for years. For example, last year The Canary reported that Shaqueille Plummer had spent over a year in segregation at HMP Long Lartin.

A  2021 Justice Inspectorates report found that prisoners were still being held in segregation for too long.

Dehumanisation

The abuse levelled against prisoners held in segregation is enabled by an institutional process of dehumanisation that happens within the prison’s walls. Prisoners are placed in segregation units as a form of punishment, and this – together with the fact that prison officers are seldom held accountable for mistreating prisoners – facilitates and enables an environment in which violence is normalised.

This dehumanisation is amplified in the case of prisoners who are racialised. Black and Muslim people are already grossly over-represented in the prison system. A 2019 report by the Prison Reform Trust found that Muslims made up 19% of the prison population, but just 5% of the general population. The same report found that 13% of all UK prisoners were Black.

A 2019 report published by the Barrow Cadbury Trust found that Muslim Prisoners – like Kevan – reported “not receiving basic care”, “not being treated respectfully by staff” and not being able to turn to them for help, “not easily being able to receive parcels and letters”, and “not easily being able to make complaints”. Their experiences were more negative in comparison with white prisoners.

All of this shows the UK prison system for what it is – a rotten, oppressive institution where racialised violence and abuse are endemic. Segregation units are a punitive system which allow for even greater dehumanisation of prisoners and unchecked brutality from officers. This institution cannot be reformed – it must be discarded. Freeing ourselves of this system and its values is an integral part of creating revolutionary change.

It’s up to us to show solidarity with all of the prisoners who are oppressed by this system. We need to stand up against racism everywhere, especially when it happens behind prison walls.

Featured image shows an aerial view of HM Prison Isis and a section of HM Prison Belmarsh (on the right) in Thamesmead West, southeast London (cropped to 770x403px), via Wikimedia Commons, Kleon3, CC BY-SA 4.0.

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