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Howard League blog · 23 Sep 2022

“I can’t win”: How it feels to be a girl in a boys’ prison

Prison is no place for a child. But those children who find themselves in the care of the state should be given every provision and support needed.

Unfortunately, inspection reports released this week show that girls across the youth custodial estate are being failed by a system inadequate to house or care for them. 

At the time of His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons’ thematic review of outcomes for girls in custody and the independent review of progress at HMYOI Wetherby and the Keppel unit, there were 14 girls in custody in England and Wales – either in Wetherby or in secure children’s homes. Of these, many were remanded to custody only due to lack of space in hospitals and the community – highlighting that these girls are being let down long before they enter the custodial system.   

The national system to house girls in custody was described as “frail” by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, with outcomes for the girls deemed to be poor, with a high level of need identified in the cohort. 

The girls in custody were seen to have complex needs, including past trauma, substance misuse, neurodivergency and mental ill-health. Rates of self-harm were found to be 12 times higher than among boys. Despite frontline staff doing their best, the custodial environment was assessed as being inadequate to address their needs. 

The Keppel unit at Wetherby prison was opened in 2008 to meet the complex needs of vulnerable boys, and was long lauded for its innovative approaches and positive culture. However, this changed in 2020, when standards started to slip. Wetherby is a boys’ prison, but a small number of girls were moved to the Keppel unit last year as a result of the closure of Rainsbrook secure training centre. 

Our client told us that racism and differential treatment was a pervasive issue throughout the prison

The legal team at the Howard League has advised a number of girls held at Wetherby, and have heard first-hand the impact it has had on them. 

The inspection of Wetherby found that there were still “weaknesses in equality work”. Staff were not given any guidance on supporting children from protected groups, and comparisons in outcomes for Black and minority ethnic and white girls were not made, meaning that differences in outcomes could not be identified or addressed. 

One client, a girl housed in the Keppel unit, told us that racism and differential treatment was a pervasive issue throughout the YOI, with Black children consistently being victim to more uses of force. She noted that Black girls were also let out of their cells less often, and were quicker to be labelled “violent” than their white counterparts. 

In her time at the YOI, our client reflected that being a girl in a boys’ prison, and a Black girl in a majority white unit compounded to create layers of differential treatment used to discriminate against her. In recounting everything from her regime, time out of cell, access to activities and education, the girl highlighted that she received restricted or unequal provision. 

In describing her regime, our client felt that she spent so much of her time in her cell, that being on the segregation unit would not have been much different. Girls were only let out of their cells if they had someone to associate with, and so other girls’ unwillingness to mix with her had significantly detrimental impacts on her access to a productive regime. 

While she described the scarcity in education received by girls in Wetherby, often watching helplessly as her classes were continuously cancelled, our client’s situation is mirrored in the experiences of some boys in the prison.

This week our legal team have sent a ‘letter before action’ on the behalf of one boy at Wetherby, challenging the failure to provide him with the level of the education to which he is legally entitled.

“I can’t get up and say I know what I’m entitled to. I can’t win.”

The Wetherby inspection report highlights these same issues in education and time spent out of cells. A large number of children were spending less than two hours a day out, and complications in rolling out a new education contract meant that no improvements were likely to take effect before 2023.

These challenges have been compounded by the shortages of prison staff and teachers, which lead to classes and various elements of children’s regimes being curtailed. 

Our client had raised these issues many times, to no avail. As a result, she did not want our legal team to take legal action on her behalf because she lacked confidence that it would make any difference.

In recounting her experiences, she described the helpless and frustrating position she continually found herself in when being seen as angry would only make her situation worse. 

She said: “I can’t get up and say I know what I’m entitled to. I can’t win.” 

The government must come up with a long-term solution so that vulnerable girls are not being held in a prison that is already failing boys, and which is not resourced to meet their needs. 

Andrea Coomber


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