The Manchester Arena bomb plotter and other dangerous terrorists have had to be moved after one of only three specialist “separation” units to prevent them radicalising other inmates was shut due to staff shortages.
The move raises fears that the prison service is running short of the experienced officers needed to provide the 24/7 high-security supervision of category A prisoners, according to penal sources.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) confirmed on Wednesday it had been forced to temporarily close the separation unit at HMP Woodhill in Milton Keynes where Hashem Abedi, the brother of the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, has been held.
The unit - a “jail within a jail” with its own elite prison officers - is designed to keep the most serious terrorist offenders and preachers of hate away from other inmates because of fears that they could spread their extremist message.
It means that the highly-trained officers can be switched to guarding other dangerous category A prisoners at Woodhill amid fears of unrest and increased violence across the rest of the prison due to the staff shortages.
The Telegraph revealed last month that jail chiefs took the rare step of moving category A prisoners from HMP Woodhill because of the staffing shortages.
Struggle to contain violence
The problems were highlighted last December in a report by Charlie Taylor, HM chief inspector of prisons, who found the young staff - 40 per cent of whom had less than two years’ experience - were struggling to contain violence with two-thirds of all assaults directed at prison officers.
In a further report in April on the separation centre at Woodhill, Mr Taylor further warned that “severe” staff shortages meant the prison regime was “curtailed” on a daily basis and some officers had “no experience” of dealing with such offenders.
The terrorists including Abedi have been moved to another separation unit at HMP Full Sutton in east Yorkshire, one of three “jails within jails” including at HMP Woodhill and HMP Frankland in county Durham.
Abedi was sentenced to at least 55 years in jail after being convicted in March of 22 counts of murder, attempted murder and plotting to cause an explosion likely to endanger life following the attack at an Ariana Grande concert on 22 May 2017.
Difficult to recruit prison officers
A prison source said it demonstrated the problems faced by jails particularly in the south of England where high employment rates were making it increasingly difficult to recruit prison officers.
“It is going to be hard to find a location where you can staff these units consistently and safely. You need highly trained and skilled people - the elite - because they are working with very sophisticated and subversive terrorists who have been identified as such by intelligence,” said the source.
Figures last month showed the number of prison officers in the main bands of three to five were down more than 300 in a year, to 21,725, with one in seven (15 per cent) quitting in the year to June. At the same time the prison population rose by 2,364 to 80,726.
A prison union source said the staffing problems were particularly acute at Woodhill because of its location in Milton Keynes, an “employment rich” area.
A prison service spokesman said: “These prisoners will continue to be closely supervised and prevented from spreading their hate to other prisoners.
“We are recruiting more staff at HMP Woodhill and have just increased pay with an extra £3,000 for some of the lowest paid, helping us reward and retain hardworking prison officers.”