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Howard League blog · 15 Mar 2024

For too long, girls have been an afterthought in a failing criminal justice system

The Howard League has been extremely busy in the fallout from last week’s distressing inspection report on Wetherby, a prison in West Yorkshire that can hold boys and girls as young as 15. I would like to thank everyone who has signed our petition calling for girls to be moved out of this prison.

Earlier this week, I met the prisons minister to raise our concerns. Unfortunately, the meeting has not resolved the situation to our satisfaction. Girls are still in Wetherby, and the government provided no indication that this will change soon.

This is a story of system failure, and failed leadership, which dates back years. In 2004, the Howard League challenged the placement of a girl aged 16 in a prison for adult women and, following this case, the government ceased the practice of placing girls in adult women’s prisons. Almost a decade later, it was decided that even separate units for girls in women’s prisons should be closed. And by 2014, it was reported that all girls were accommodated in secure training centres or secure children’s homes.

Some girls were held in Rainsbrook secure training centre, in Warwickshire, but this facility was closed in 2021 after a succession of inspection reports raised concerns about safety. At the last inspection, conducted only days before the children were moved out, a staff member told inspectors: “Things are so bad in here that a child or staff member is going to die soon.”

So the decision was taken to place girls in the Keppel Unit at Wetherby. These placements broke with established policy in two ways: by placing girls in the prison estate (as opposed to the specialist secure children’s homes and secure training centres); and, specifically, by placing them in a mixed-sex prison.

In April 2022, the Howard League was given assurances by the government that placing girls in Wetherby was a temporary measure for 18 to 24 months, pending a proper plan. Almost two years on, that plan has failed to materialise. We have met five prisons ministers during that time, raising this issue at every meeting, and the government does not appear to be any closer to delivering a permanent solution that will keep girls safe.

The current situation is untenable, as is clear from the findings published by HM Inspectorate of Prisons last week. When inspectors visited Wetherby in November and December last year, they found that three girls had accounted for more than half the self-harm incidents recorded by the prison in the past year.

How can we be reassured that such an incident will not happen again?

The report states: “Despite the best efforts of staff, who often had to intervene several times a night to remove ligatures, it was clear that the lack of flexibility in the daily regime and long periods locked alone in cells during the night and at weekends did not help to meet the needs of these very vulnerable girls.”

The line from the report that has attracted most attention is the revelation that, on consecutive nights, male staff had forcibly removed a girl’s clothing to prevent her self-harming. Prison policies are clear, not only that male officers must never be involved in stripping women or girls, but that there are no circumstances in which clothing should be forcibly removed at all.

And while the Ministry of Justice has said that the forced removal of clothing was required to prevent serious harm, for male officers to have found themselves in this extremely difficult position two nights in a row is simply unfathomable. How can we be reassured that such an incident will not happen again?

Yesterday HM Prison and Probation Service published its action plan in response to the inspection report. It includes an ambition to develop “gender-specific guidance for HMYOI Wetherby for the care of girls” by July. What was a “temporary measure” is now being enshrined in policy.

Prison is no place for a child. It is particularly ill-equipped to meet the specific needs of girls. In our media statement responding to the inspection report, we called on the government to move the girls to more suitable accommodation, such as secure children’s homes. Following Rainsbrook’s closure, there is one secure training centre remaining – Oakhill, in Milton Keynes – but we are concerned that the girls would not be safe there either.

An inspection report on Oakhill, published in November 2023, concluded that the “impact of a rapid, periodic expansion in the centre’s population, coupled with the introduction of girls with additional and complex needs, has led to staff attrition and increased sickness absence”. Senior leaders at Oakhill had stated that “in their opinion, a number of children have been inappropriately placed at the centre, as the centre is unable to meet their needs”.

The government has had two years to come up with a plan for girls, and we stand ready to respond to that plan when it is put out for consultation. Maintaining the status quo should not be an option. In the meantime, we will keep up the pressure, and we will need your help to do that. For too long, girls have been an afterthought in a failing criminal justice system; this cannot be allowed to continue.

Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.)


  • Josh B says:

    I daresay the government’s lack of urgency to rectify this unjustifiable state of affairs reflects the widespread apathy of an unsympathetic public.

    As far as the prisoners go, I suppose young girls evoke the least amount of antipathy from a society that, for the most part, sees prisoners as less than human. And yet, if this were happening to “innocent” young girls, I’m sure we’d see a media explosion and public outcry that would stimulate government action. Instead, it’s left to a small charity to raise awareness and gather a couple of thousand signatures.

    Until prisoners of all ages are seen as fully-fledged human beings by society more broadly, government won’t find the impetus to deliver the investment our prisons so desperately need. What incentive do they have? The electorate won’t punish them for presiding over an increasingly cruel penal system. Quite the opposite!

  • Catherine McGuinness says:

    Reading this report really disturbed me. It is shocking that these girls have to live in these conditions. What is not surprising, is the Government stance, the usual ostrich syndrome prevails with them, they have no solution for anything, just Bury their head in the sand.

    Putting these girls through this, what type of people do the government think they will become?
    More broken people as a result of a ‘BROKEN ‘system.

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