The U.K. Ministry of Justice is highly secretive about where inmates live within prisons like Belmarsh, a high-security facility in southeast London. But for Julian Assange — a relatively new resident and an internationally recognized media activist who lived in self-imposed solitude for the last 7 years — one possibility looms large.
He could have roommates.
The WikiLeaks co-founder has been held at Belmarsh since April 11, when the Ecuadorian government kicked him out of its London embassy where he claimed asylum to avoid prosecution for sexual assault allegations in Sweden. In defense of ending his stay, officials pointed to Assange skateboarding in the hallways, accused him of smearing shit on walls, and alleged that he threatened the staffers who provided him shelter.
They went out of their way to paint a picture of the world’s worst houseguest — or a man going seriously stir crazy. But Assange did hang out with his cat and welcome occasional visitors, including "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson and a very mysterious vegan sandwich.
For all the insanity of spending seven years sequestered in a 330-square-foot apartment, Belmarsh’s conditions could prove to be even more intimate. Roughly 60 percent of its units are multi-occupancy cells. That means Assange could be bunking with someone else as he serves a 50-week sentence for hopping bail and battles an extradition request to the U.S. to face conspiracy charges for helping former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning try to hack into Pentagon computer systems. The facility also has a separate, high-security unit, where the U.K. has imprisoned terror suspects without formal charges.
Belmarsh faces growing gang violence, its Independent Monitoring Board found last year, in addition to an influx of drugs and mobile phones.
Overcrowding is also a problem at the facility, according to a separate report by the U.K.’s Inspectorate of Prisons. While Belmarsh is equipped for up to 900 inmates incarcerated for a variety of offenses, up to 125 two-person cells were often crammed with three inmates last year. Just one in six inmates interviewed by the Inspectorate of Prisons said they could shower every day. Laundry was disorganized, it added, and “there was a shortage of prison kits.”
“Men who were new to prison had a single cell on their first night,” the report stated. “Cell-sharing risk assessments carried out the next day considered the relevant information.”
It’s unclear whether an inmate’s international fame for exposing U.S. national security abuses or spreading information that helped Donald Trump win the White House would be relevant in such an assessment.
The U.K. agency didn't respond to VICE News’ request to learn about Assange’s living conditions; neither did his legal team and WikiLeaks.
It doesn’t appear all bad for the 47-year-old Australian, though. Last month, WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson told the Associated Press that Assange could meet with his legal team with greater ease and potentially receive much-needed treatment for a shoulder problem in jail.
“There are medical facilities there, access to dental care, I would assume, and a garden to go out into,” Hrafnsson said.
As for Assange’s cat, its whereabouts remain unknown.
Cover image: File photo dated 11/04/19 of Julian Assange, who is due to begin his fight against extradition to the US over allegations he conspired to break into a classified Pentagon computer. [Victoria Jones/PA Wire URN:42631088 (Press Association via AP Images)]