Two inmates were jailed earlier this month for trying to murder a prison officer at HMP Whitemoor using improvised weapons and wearing fake suicide vests – one of four terror attacks allegedly carried out by serving or released prisoners in the past year.
Both men had access to Isis propaganda, a smuggled SD card and mobile phone inside the high-security Cambridgeshire prison. One of the attackers, Brusthom Ziamani, was already known to be a terrorism risk after being originally jailed for plotting to behead a British soldier, while his accomplice Baz Hockton was radicalised on the inside.
Experts warn the review must lead to urgent action, or else risk the death of a prison officer at the hands of extremist inmates.
The Ministry of Justice says it has safeguards in place to prevent and monitor extremism, but neither man had raised concerns and Ziamani was about to be given a “certificate of achievement” after apparently complying with a deradicalisation programme for eight months.
The justice secretary launched an internal review of the custodial management of terrorist prisoners, including looking at deradicalisation courses, after the attack in January.
The probe was not publicly announced, as ministers pressed for new laws to increase sentences for terrorists and keep them in prison for longer.
Ian Acheson, a former prison governor who carried out the government’s 2016 review of Islamist extremism in jails, said he feared that a prison officer could be taken hostage and killed.Prison officers restrain two inmates after an alleged terror attack at HMP Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire on 9 January 2020(Metropolitan Police )
“I’m not at all satisfied from the evidence that we’ve seen that the prison service is on top of this problem,” he told The Independent.
“We’ve come within millimeters of a prison officer being murdered by a terrorist in prison.
“Terrorism Act prisoners are very small in number but the harm they can cause to society is huge, and after countless failures of intelligence and security inside prisons we ought to have got on top of this now.
“There is something very wrong at the moment inside our high-security prisons and it would be deluded to suggest otherwise.”
Mr Acheson wants progress on his recommendations to be reviewed, and accused the Ministry of Justice of “defensiveness and bland statements” over the current situation.
The HMP Whitemoor attack was the latest in a growing number of incidents raising warning signs over the management of terrorist offenders, and wider extremism inside prisons.Three of the ‘Three Musketeers’ terror plotters had spent time in prison together(West Midlands Police)
Rajan Basra, a research fellow from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, said it was “worrying” that the HMP Whitemoor attackers were able to make suicide vests and weapons without their plans being discovered.
He questioned why an exceptionally violent inmate like Hockton, who was previously jailed for a string of unprovoked knife attacks, was allowed to associate so closely with radicaliser Ziamani.
“If they had killed the officer we would be talking about a national inquiry with people giving evidence in public,” Mr Basra added.
“It’s only a question of luck that they didn’t kill him so why aren’t we having the same level of public scrutiny?”
He warned that if the government was to continue measures to keep terrorists in prison for longer, there needed to be greater funding, resources and attention to what happens inside jail.
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Terror attacks have also been carried out by inmates in other countries including France, which has seen two stabbing incidents targeting staff since 2018.
“We are having all these warning signs and at some point a prison officer could be killed,” Mr Basra said. “Is that what it will take to make a change?”
A prison officer working in the high-security estate previously told The Independent that jails were being “run on chaos”, and that staff did not have the capacity to monitor and tackle radicalisation.
He said there was “no control” over extremist inmates, adding: “I don’t see any end to the attacks whatsoever, those ones that come in with an extremist view leave with a stronger one.”
The Prison Officers’ Association said budget cuts since 2010 had made cell searches and general prison security more difficult, and that counter-extremism training was not adequate.
General secretary Steve Gillan added: “We don’t think the funding and intelligence is there to keep a close watch on everything and every prisoner that is a potential for radicalising others or being radicalised themselves. We don’t believe that the correct programmes are in place to deradicalise and we hope this will be dealt with in the future.”HMP Whitemoor attacker Brusthom Ziamani had been appearing to comply with a deradicalisation scheme for eight months(Metropolitan Police )
Mr Gillan said he was relieved at the verdict in the HMP Whitemoor case, but that prison officers now face managing Ziamani and Hockton knowing they tried to kill one of their colleagues.
“It is frightening for prison officers but they’re some of the most underrated professionals that keep the public safe,” he added.
The Ministry of Justice said that as well as the review into the management of all terrorist prisoners while in jail, a separate internal investigation would look at the HMP Whitemoor case.
It created a joint extremism unit involving police and the security services in 2017 and after this year’s attacks, a programme was launched to improve counterterrorism work in prisons and probation.
The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation also looked into multi-agency monitoring arrangements for released terrorists.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Our tough measures to stop extremists spreading their poisonous ideologies in prison have been stepped up.
“We have trained more than 29,000 officers to better spot the signs of extremism, increased the number of specialist counterterrorism staff and will separate the most subversive prisoners from the general population where necessary.”