Violent gangs and "deplorable" shower conditions have been flagged as areas of immediate concerns at HMP Belmarsh, but an annual review reports that the pandemic has "dominated life" at the high-security prison.

Once a year, the Prison Act 1952 requires every prison to be monitored by an independent board (IMB) appointed by the Secretary of State from members of the community in which the prison or centre is situated.

And surprisingly, violence levels at Thamesmead's Category A prison have fallen significantly, thanks in part to the lockdown, and inspectors said they were impressed by staff's commitment to creating a safe environment.

Despite this, the report found that the main area of concern was, once again, the existence and influence of gangs within Belmarsh.

Violence between gangs remain an issue, and the report noted that after a fight in March between Muslims and non-Muslims, where an officer was seriously injured, they had to bring a “split regime” into effect where both groups had to be separated.

Prison staff regularly work to separate members from different gangs, and a "major concern for the staff is the large number of conflicts they have to deal with when transporting prisoners for court appearances."

In last year's report, the IMB said there were now 120 identified gangs inside Belmarsh, resulting in violence and aggression between prisoners and staff.

But in the last year, assaults on staff have fallen from 161 to 105, whilst prisoner-on-prisoner assaults have also fallen from 299 to 267.

The jail has managed to keep the confirmed number of Covid-19 cases low during the pandemic, a major concern at other sites, and Belmarsh's management of prisoners in lockdown was judged to be "exceptionally good."

In fact, lockdown reportedly "dominated life" at the jail, with the prisoners "confined to cells for a majority of the time, typically 23 hours a day."

The prison has seen five deaths in the last year, one murder, three self-inflicted, and one Covid-19 related, but whilst there was an outbreak of cases amongst healthcare and discipline staff, there were just six other positive cases up to June 30.

The report said: "The Covid-19 pandemic had seriously detrimental effects in a number of areas: it brought an abrupt and total halt to purposeful activity; it deprived prisoners of the opportunity to see family and friends, in person on visits; and it confined prisoners to their cells for up to 23 hours a day."

But major concerns remain at HMP Belmarsh, the highest-security jail situated across 60 acres of the old Ministry of Defence site in Woolwich.

Most notably, there has been a large increase in incidents of self harm between April 2019 and March 2020, with 444 recorded, up from 266 the year prior.

The report said: "Mental health issues among prisoners are a significant concern, with most inpatient beds occupied by mental health patients.

"This concern was amplified during the pandemic, when face-to-face psychology work practically stopped."

The report says there were 110 drug finds over the 12 month period, 150 weapon finds and 23 mobile phones.

A body scanner installed last year has proven effective in identifying prisoners attempting to smuggle illicit items into the prison, and the prison made positive changes to its issue with triple occupancy cells.

However, inspectors said it was "extremely frustrating to have to report again on the continued failure to refurbish the shower areas across the main house blocks."

The shower areas were described as "deplorable and unacceptable", and the Board said there main concern remained their "dilapidated state across the prison."