Protest in solidarity with Julian Assange outside the walls of Belmarsh Prison

A Visit to Belmarsh Prison, Where Julian Assange Awaits His Final Appeal Against Extradition to the US

HMP Belmarsh. It is 2:30 pm on Wednesday, December 13, when Julian Assange strides into the visitors’ area. He stands out in the column of 23 prisoners for his height — 6′ 2″ — and flowing white locks with trimmed beard. He squints, looking for a familiar face among the wives, sisters, sons, and fathers of the other inmates. I am waiting, as assigned, at D-3, one of about 40 sets of small coffee tables surrounded by three upholstered chairs — two blue, one red — screwed into the floor of what looks like a basketball court. We spot each other, walk forward, and embrace. It is the first time I have seen him in six years. I blurt, “You’re pale.” Through a mischievous smile I remember from past meetings, he jokes, “They call it prison pale.”

He has not been outdoors — apart from a minute when police dragged him into a paddy wagon — since he took refuge in London’s cramped Ecuadorian Embassy in June 2012. The embassy’s French windows had afforded glimpses of sky. Here at Belmarsh maximum security prison in southeast London, his abode since April 11, 2019, he has not seen the sun. Warders confine him to a cell for 23 out of every 24 hours. His single hour of recreation takes place within four walls, under supervision. His paleness is best described as deathly.

I had arrived by train and bus an hour and a half earlier for registration and security inspection. The process began in the single-story Visitors Center to the left of the prison, as bleak a 1950s-style lunchroom as any depicted by Edward Hopper: cheap tables, chipped chairs, dim lighting, and banks of glass-fronted storage lockers. A kindly woman no younger than my 72 years told me I was early and suggested I have coffee. I ordered it from man in a crude kitchen, who poured boiling water into a mug of instant powder. Twenty minutes later, at 1:15, the door to an adjoining office opened for visitors to queue for passes. When my turn came, I gave my name to one of three uniformed women behind an elevated counter. She examined her computer and asked, “Are you here for Mr. Assange?” She was polite, almost friendly, as she recorded prints of my index fingers and told me to look at an overhead camera that took my photograph.

I presented three hardback books for Assange: my own Soldiers Don’t Go Mad; Sebastian Faulks’s new novel, Seventh Son; and Pegasus: The Story of the World’s Most Dangerous Spyware, by Laurent Richard and Sandrine Rigaud. She instructed me to hand them to the stout woman seated to her right. This woman examined my book, the history of a mental hospital for shell-shocked officers in the First World War. Looking at the title page, which I had signed for Assange, she forbade me to give it to him. I asked the question that must not be asked in a prison: Why? Nothing may be written in any book for inmates. I said it was my signature on a book I wrote, not a secret code. No matter. That was the rule. She ordered me to wait in the lunchroom while she checked on the possibility of admitting the other two books…

Read the full article on The Nation

Reading recommendation: Julian Assange In His Own Words.

Main image: Protest in solidarity with Julian Assange outside the walls of Belmarsh Prison, 29 January 2022 © Alisdare Hickson, Wikimedia Commons.

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