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WOMENS WORDS

Get those girls out of Wetherby. Now.

On 5th March 2023, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons published a report on an unannounced inspection of HM Young Offender Institution Wetherby. Wetherby is a prison in West Yorkshire for boys aged 15 – 17. One of the most shocking elements highlighted by the report, widely publicised in the media, was the account of a girl who was self-harming by tying her clothes to form ligatures, being forcibly stripped by adult male staff, twice during the short period of the inspection alone.


Wetherby has the highest self-harm rate of any prison in the country, the report noted. The THREE girls amongst the 165 children held in Wetherby accounted for more than half of the incidents of self-harm. On 23 occasions girls had been held down and had their clothes forcibly cut off by all male teams of staff. Male staff, because Wetherby is a boys’ prison.


So why are there girls being held there?


The answer lies in the appalling state of custodial services for children. Children in custody are held in one of three settings:


●       Secure Training Centres (STCs), run by the Youth Custody Service for girls and boys aged between 12 and 18 years old


●       Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs) run by local authorities or private agencies, for girls and boys between 10 and 18 years old (SCHs also accommodate children held securely for welfare reasons, who mix fully with children detained for committing serious crimes)


●       Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), run by the Youth Custody Service for boys aged 15 – 18


SCHs have a right of veto over any placement. If they turn down a child, there is currently no means to challenge that. This leaves the three STCs: Medway, Oakhill and Rainsbrook.

Medway STC was closed in 2020 after repeated inspections found failings in safeguarding and care. It is currently being revamped as a ‘secure school’, due to open imminently.


Rainsbrook STC was urgently closed in 2021 after an inspection found that children could not be kept safe. It was at this stage that, in what was billed as a temporary measure to ease immediate pressures, girls were first accommodated in Keppel.


Later in 2021, Oakhill was given an Urgent Notification for severe failings in inspection; while it remains open, the numbers of children accommodated are being kept low to manage its shortcomings in safeguarding. This leaves nowhere for the tiny numbers of girls given a prison sentence.


These numbers are indeed tiny – only six girls are in youth custody at the moment. For those turned down by Secure Children’s Homes, the choice of the Youth Custody Service has been to accommodate them in Wetherby. The justification for this choice appears to be that the girls are housed in a unit called Keppel, which has a higher ratio of staff to children than is usual at a Young Offenders Institution. However Keppel has this high ratio (of MALE staff) because it was set up to manage some of the most damaged boys in the system, including those who have committed sexual offences. This information casts an even more sinister light on those astronomic rates of self-harm by the girls shut into this unit.


For the past year or so, YOIs have accommodated younger adults, in order to ease the pressures on adult prisons. Around a third of prisoners in YOIs are over 18 years old; the increase in incidents of violence and huge rise in the use of PAVA, an incapacitating spray causing burning sensations (its use against under 18s is highly controversial) during that time is surely no coincidence.


So girls in Wetherby are also in spaces with violent adult male prisoners.


Rather than taking steps to move the girls immediately, the Youth Custody Service stated in its action plan published in March 2024 in response to the inspection that it would create “gender-specific guidance for HMYOI Wetherby on the care of girls”.


And who is holding the Youth Custody Service to account for this?


The Youth Justice Board has a legal duty to monitor the performance of all elements of youth justice provision. Yet its newly published guidance on custody and resettlement says: “YOIs…except for the Keppel unit, only take boys”. This was supposed to be a temporary measure. Worryingly, it looks as though the Youth Justice Board, rather than upholding its responsibility to hold the Youth Custody Service to account, has accepted that its failure to meet the needs of girls will be permanent.


An HMI Prisons thematic report in 2022 gives a grim picture of the needs of the girls who end up in prison. Shockingly, some are placed in prison on remand (before trial) solely because of a lack of housing. Girls who go to prison have experienced trauma, sexual and physical abuse and exploitation and have complex mental health issues.


The report also found that self-harm and restraint was common for girls; girls were punished more and poor behaviour by boys tolerated far more. Girls had less time outside of cells than boys; and the rate of violence was highest in the unit where they lived.


The report notes that when speaking to prison staff, “psychologists view mixed units unfavourably, and express concern about the potential for girls to be re-traumatised”. The key argument for mixed provision was that it ‘mirrored the outside community’ – that community which had so badly and serially abused and failed these girls.


In 2024 the minister responsible for youth custody, Edward Argar, was asked in Parliament about the relative costs of the different types of youth institution. He revealed that the average cost per year of keeping one child in each type is:

●       Secure Training Centre £305,892

●       Secure Children’s Home £299,459

●       Young Offender Institution £129,333


Leaving aside the usual tabloid comparisons with sending a child to Eton (£46,296 if you are interested), let alone the question of how STCs are failing so badly with this level of funding; this begs the question as to whether accommodating those three girls in Wetherby is influenced by the cost.


There are only six girls in prison. Surely it is not beyond the Youth Custody Service to create specific provision for them, away from boys?


It was 1813 when Elizabeth Fry first began her work to create sex specific prison facilities for women, with the primary aim to protect female prisoners from being raped. In 1823 she was successful in getting the Gaols Act, putting sex segregated prison accommodation into statute, agreed by Parliament. 200 years later, the Youth Custody Service is betraying her legacy.


The Secretary of State and prisons minister must take action NOW.




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