Time for Category E

By Mark Leech Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales

The two prisoners who attacked and attempted to murder a Whitemoor prison officer have now received life sentences.

Good.

And if anyone thinks the Whitemoor Prison attack was a one-off I refer them to the MoJ research report published a year ago on Muslim gangs in prison on The Prison Oracle showing how these gangs operate, how they label as grasses those who won’t convert so they’re attacked, how they have a clear hierarchical structure with bosses right down to foot soldiers, how they are spread across the prison estate and why, in the words of the report, a transfer to another jail won’t help because ‘brothers are waiting to stab you when you arrive there’.

Unless we take our own radical steps to tackle the virus of extremism in our prisons the very real danger is that it won’t be long before what happened at Whitemoor will happen again – and again.

The reality is the Prison Service is still in primary school when it comes to dealing with terrorist and radicalised offenders.

All adult male prisoners are subject to ‘security categorisation’, a risk management process designed to ensure every prisoner is assigned a security category appropriate to managing their risk of escape, harm to the public, custodial criminality, impact on the safety of others, and threats to the security and good order of the prison – but none of them specifically address the issue of extremism, radicalisation or identify those who are (be in no doubt) at war with us, our culture, and our freedom of religious choice.

Our security categories today are well over 50 years old, although slightly amended following the six-man Category A escape (ironically also from Whitemoor) in 1994, they are exactly the same ABCD security categories Lord Mountbatten gave us in his 1966 report and as a consequence they are light years behind the times.

Extremists in prison are a virus that unchecked pervades and infects all those who live and work in prisons – and we have done little but pay lip-service to it.

In 2017 three ‘jails-within-jails’ called Separation Centres, designed to prevent extremists from radicalising vulnerable prisoners, were introduced – but they were hopelessly ill thought-through and ultimately underused.

The Ministry of Justice claimed between 700 and 1,000 prisoners represented a risk due to their extremist views – but the reality is that these Separation Centres had space for just eight prisoners in each Centre and while two of them – at Full Sutton and Frankland prisons – held an average of between three to six prisoners, the one at Woodhill prison stood completely empty for two years and was closed down.

The Separation centres closed because too few prisoners were identified as candidates for them, the process of identification was complicated, unnecessarily long-winded and the centres themselves were far too few in number and provided ridiculously low levels of accommodation – providing space for 24 extremists, across three sites, when the MOJ figures themselves said they need to accommodate between 700 and 1,000 shows how poorly planned and executed it was in theory; but in principle it was bang on.

What we need is a specific security category – Category E for Extremist – that identifies Extremists from their offences the moment they enter our prisons. A Category E that has specific management policies for isolating them, ensures they are moved inside the prison in single numbers, escorted by a minimum of three officers – capable of becoming an instant three-man control and restraint team if required – with constant cell searches, disruptive management techniques, frequent prison moves and which both allocates and ring-fences the resources necessary to ensure we focus robustly on their management for all our sakes – but one that has a clear, earnable, demonstrable exit strategy too.

That is why we need a Category E.

We need a Category E to accommodate extremists inside a Category E wing inside each dispersal prison; these are people who are at war with us – these people are not simply dangerous, their declared intention is to destroy our culture, our country, our way of life and everything we hold dear. They think nothing of mowing down a soldier on a London street and publicly beheading him then waiting for the police to arrive while telling everyone stunned by what they have just witnessed why they did it.

Indeed it is salient to note that Ziamani, the prime mover in the Whitemoor attack is serving a 22-year sentence for plotting to behead a soldier in 2015. He was arrested in east London with a knife, hammer and an Isis flag in his backpack – given those facts how on earth was this person able to move around freely inside our Maximum Security Prison Estate, infecting others with his hatred, and coming within seconds of murdering a prison officer?

People like Ziamani are not your ordinary Category A armed robbers, crime lords, murderers, sexual offenders or even serial killers – Ziamani is an example of those with whom we are at war as a nation, people who infect our prisons with their perverse view of Islam and they get away with it because we allow them to freely associate with others.

Now, after Whitemoor, after Westminster Bridge, London Bridge, Streatham High Street and Manchester Arena we must take all steps necessary to isolate them, dismantle their influence on others and keep both prisoners and staff safe.

The attempted murder inside a maximum security prison by known extremists, who were able to fashion genuine-looking suicide belts, and acquire weapons they used to bring a prison officer to within an inch of execution, and do so right under the noses of prison staff, needs to be the wakeup call that we have so far, and for far too long now, simply and tragically failed to heed.