By John Pilger
28/29, 2019 "Information
set out at dawn. Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh
is in the flat hinterland of south east London,
a ribbon of walls and wire with no horizon. At
what is called the visitors centre, I
surrendered my passport, wallet, credit cards,
medical cards, money, phone, keys, comb, pen,
I need two pairs of glasses. I
had to choose which pair stayed behind. I left
my reading glasses. From here on, I couldn’t
read, just as Julian couldn’t read for the first
few weeks of his incarceration. His glasses were
sent to him, but inexplicably took months to
There are large TV screens in the
visitors centre. The TV is always on, it seems,
and the volume turned up. Game shows,
commercials for cars and pizzas and funeral
packages, even TED talks, they seem perfect for
a prison: like visual valium.
I joined a queue of sad, anxious
people, mostly poor women and children, and
grandmothers. At the first desk, I was
fingerprinted, if that is still the word for
“Both hands, press down!” I was
told. A file on me appeared on the screen.
I could now cross to the main
gate, which is set in the walls of the prison.
The last time I was at Belmarsh to see Julian,
it was raining hard. My umbrella wasn’t allowed
beyond the visitors centre. I had the choice of
getting drenched, or running like hell.
Grandmothers have the same choice.
At the second desk, an official
behind the wire, said, “What’s that?”
“My watch,” I replied guiltily.
“Take it back,” she said.
So I ran back through the rain,
returning just in time to be biometrically
tested again. This was followed by a full body
scan and a full body search. Soles of feet;
At each stop, our silent,
obedient group shuffled into what is known as a
sealed space, squeezed behind a yellow line.
Pity the claustrophobic; one woman squeezed her
We were then ordered into another
holding area, again with iron doors shutting
loudly in front of us and behind us.
“Stand behind the yellow line!”
said a disembodied voice.
Another electronic door slid
partly open; we hesitated wisely. It shuddered
and shut and opened again. Another holding area,
another desk, another chorus of, “Show your
Then we were in a long room with
squares on the floor where we were told to
stand, one at a time. Two men with sniffer dogs
arrived and worked us, front and back.
The dogs sniffed our arses and
slobbered on my hand. Then more doors opened,
with a new order to “hold out your wrist!”
A laser branding was our ticket
into a large room, where the prisoners sat
waiting in silence, opposite empty chairs. On
the far side of the room was Julian, wearing a
yellow arm band over his prison clothes.
As a remand prisoner he is
entitled to wear his own clothes, but when the
thugs dragged him out of the Ecuadorean embassy
last April, they prevented him bringing a small
bag of belongings. His clothes would follow,
they said, but like his reading glasses, they
were mysteriously lost.
For 22 hours a day, Julian is
confined in “healthcare”. It’s not really a
prison hospital, but a place where he can be
isolated, medicated and spied on. They spy on
him every 30 minutes: eyes through the door.
They would call this “suicide watch”.
In the adjoining cells are
convicted murderers, and further along is a
mentally ill man who screams through the night.
“This is my One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,”
he said. “Therapy” is an occasional game of
Monopoly. His one assured social gathering is
the weekly service in the chapel. The priest, a
kind man, has become a friend. The other day, a
prisoner was attacked in the chapel; a fist
smashed his head from behind while hymns were
When we greet each other, I can
feel his ribs. His arm has no muscle. He has
lost perhaps 10 to 15 kilos since April. When I
first saw him here in May, what was most
shocking was how much older he looked.
“I think I’m going out of my
mind,” he said then.
I said to him, “No you’re not.
Look how you frighten them, how powerful you
are.” Julian’s intellect, resilience and wicked
sense of humor – all unknown to the low life who
defame him — are, I believe, protecting him. He
is wounded badly, but he is not going out of his
We chat with his hand over his
mouth so as not to be overheard. There are
cameras above us. In the Ecuadorean embassy, we
used to chat by writing notes to each other and
shielding them from the cameras above us.
Wherever Big Brother is, he is clearly
On the walls are happy-clappy
slogans exhorting the prisoners to “keep on
keeping on” and “be happy, be hopeful and laugh
The only exercise he has is on a
small bitumen patch, overlooked by high walls
with more happy-clappy advice to enjoy ‘the
blades of grass beneath your feet’. There is no
He is still denied a laptop and
software with which to prepare his case against
extradition. He still cannot call his American
lawyer, or his family in Australia.
The incessant pettiness of
Belmarsh sticks to you like sweat. If you lean
too close to the prisoner, a guard tells you to
sit back. If you take the lid off your coffee
cup, a guard orders you to replace it. You are
allowed to bring in £10 to spend at a small café
run by volunteers. “I’d like something healthy,”
said Julian, who devoured a sandwich.
Across the room, a prisoner and a
woman visiting him were having a row: what might
be called a ‘domestic’. A guard intervened and
the prisoner told him to “fuck off”.
This was the signal for a posse
of guards, mostly large, overweight men and
women eager to pounce on him and hold him to the
floor, then frog march him out. A sense of
violent satisfaction hung in the stale air.
Now the guards shouted at the
rest of us that it was time to go. With the
women and children and grandmothers, I began the
long journey through the maze of sealed areas
and yellow lines and biometric stops to the main
gate. As I left the visitor’s room, I looked
back, as I always do. Julian sat alone, his fist
clenched and held high.
John Pilger is a war correspondent, film-maker
and author. His latest film is "Dirty War On The
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