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Howard League blog · 15 Jul 2021

If girls need to be in custody, they should be in local authority units, not prisons

During a hearing of the Justice Committee in Parliament  on 13 July, when the Minister and the head of HM Prisons and Probation Service were asked about how girls were going to be cared for now that Rainsbrook secure training centre (STC) was closing down, they indicated, perhaps inadvertently, that they were thinking of putting the young girls into prisons holding boys.

Let’s take a step back and put this into context. Rainsbrook has been run by an American company with a history of pretty appalling abuse of prisoners, even by US prison standards, so it is mystifying how it got the contract to run a child jail in the first place. The STC has had a series of dreadful inspection reports culminating in the judgement that it was unsafe for children and for staff. The decision to close it down was very welcome, and as a result the 30 children had to be moved out.

Half were shipped off to the G4S-run STC at Oakhill, itself the subject of highly critical reports indicating that it too is not a safe place for children. Other boys were placed in young offender institutions, apparently to prepare them for the adult prison estate (yes, the minister said that). This is despite the fact that these children were known to be too vulnerable to be held in the prison estate, which was why they were placed in the STC in the first place.

According to Youth Justice Board figures in May of this year, there were only 16 girls under the age of 18 in the whole of the penal estate in the whole of England and Wales and most are held in local authority units. During the Parliamentary hearing it was said there are currently 18 girls, so whichever is the true number, there are hardly any, and this is a problem that can be solved.

The privately-run Rainsbrook STC did hold some girls. We understand that some of the girls in Rainsbrook who had reached the age of 18 even if they were imminently due for release back into the community, were shipped off to an adult women’s prison. No under-18-year-old girls are held in prisons, so rehousing these younger girls has been the challenge. As I understand it, none of the boys or girls from Rainsbrook have been rehoused into local authority units, despite places being available.

Looking back a couple of decades, when girls were held in prisons, we at the Howard League worked with the girls incarcerated in Bullwood Hall prison. An experienced and qualified Howard League staff member spent several days a week, sitting with, supporting, and advocating for the girls. We held an event in the prison, hosted by Cherie Blair, to raise awareness of the plight of the girls and we published various reports showing why prison was the wrong place for them. Whilst the governor and prison staff did their best, the facilities were pretty dire. We had to provide pants and bras and other clothing to the girls who came in from court with only what they were standing up in.

The idea that young girls could be held alongside boys in prisons is bizarre and positively dangerous

In 2004, following concern about the treatment of these girls detained in adult women’s prisons, and partly in response to work done by the Howard League which revealed the failure to care properly for them, David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, set up separate units for them inside the women’s prison estate. At the time there were 86 girls in custody. This was strongly opposed at the time, not least by the Howard League, as we argued that the girls should not be in custody at all. However, £16m was allocated to refurbish the units and training staff. The units never really worked and in 2014 they were closed down (starting to sound familiar?) and since then no girls have been put into prisons.

It is my contention that now that there are now so few girls in custody, they can be placed in the local authority units, which are competent to care for girls and have a record of success. The idea that young girls could be held alongside boys in prisons is bizarre and positively dangerous. I’m not even sure it would be lawful. Mixing young girls with boys has never been safe – as was proved at G4S Oakhill STC, which used to mix boys and girls but the girls were removed because they were not safe. Putting young girls back into prisons would be a retrograde step that would almost certainly put them at considerable risk of abuse, assault and emotional trauma. Prison is no place for children, but it is certainly no place for young girls.

The suggestion by the Minister and prison authorities appeared to be that girls could be placed alongside the boys in the Keppel Unit in Wetherby prison. The Keppel Unit is a national resource for boys aged 15 to 17 who have complex needs, including high risk to others and to themselves, physical or mental health needs, learning disabilities, communication needs and substance misuse. The girls would have to be mixed with the boys in the living and sleeping areas because the unit is really quite small and has few facilities, thereby putting them at considerable risk from boys who are known to have complex needs and who may have committed serious, violent and sex offences against girls. Although the staffing in the unit is more generous than in the main prison, it in no way replicates the expert and experienced staff found in the local authority units.

The other possibility hinted at during the Justice Committee session was the idea of setting up a new unit in some other unspecified male prison. Again this would be totally unsuitable, very expensive, and pointless.

I can’t believe I am having to write this blog. The answer is so simple. Caring for the very few girls in the system means making sure that they all really need to be in custody in the first place, and I happen to know that some at least are coming to the end of short sentences and could be released a bit early. And the remaining few should be placed in local authority units which have space for them.

The really important lesson here is not to build ever more prison cells in the wrong places, with the wrong staff and using the money wrongly, but to keep the girls out of the toxic penal system in the first place. The handful of young girls who may need to be in custody must only be housed in the best place for them and that is the local authority-run secure units.


  • Elizabeth Walton says:

    I can’t believe you’re having to write it either.
    Prison is no place for girls, or women.

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