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Howard League blog · 18 Mar 2022

Keppel’s decline

When a child is in trouble, we should do all that we can to give them the care and support they need. This may sound obvious, but as the Howard League has seen through its legal work, and as a long line of official inspection reports makes clear, prisons holding children fail routinely to reach this standard. Prison is no place for a child.

The Keppel unit was supposed to be different, and for a while it was. Opened at Wetherby prison in 2008, this 48-bed unit was designed to meet the complex needs of some of the most vulnerable children in custody. This was at a time when there were about 3,000 children in the system – six times as many as there are today.

When the Guardian newspaper visited Keppel in 2012, it reported that “the unit is already being hailed as a leading light in youth justice”. A journalist spoke to boys whose young lives had been damaged by abuse, chaos and trauma. In other prisons, the newspaper reported, they might have been locked in cells for hours on end, but at Keppel they were looking after animals as part of a therapeutic programme.

In the years that followed, Keppel continued to attract praise. When Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons visited the unit for the third time, in 2013, its inspectors found that “the positive culture and work practices had developed to a higher level and now provided a model of how a specialist unit should be run”. A later inspection, conducted in 2019, found that the unit “should be commended for the good outcomes it was achieving for some very vulnerable and challenging children”.

Fast-forward three years and the picture is entirely different. A new report on Wetherby and Keppel, published on Wednesday (16 March), states that the unit had “lost its identity” when inspectors visited in December last year.

“Children and staff had experienced unstable leadership,” the report adds. “[O]utcomes had declined in all areas and the unit was no longer delivering a distinctive therapeutic environment. Provision was indistinguishable from the rest of the YOI in most areas.”

Until recently, only boys had been held in Keppel. But that changed last year, when a small number of girls were moved to the unit at short notice following the closure of places elsewhere. Two girls have been advised by the Howard League legal team. At the time of the inspection, three girls were being held temporarily in Wetherby’s Napier unit while part of Keppel was refurbished to provide designated accommodation for girls.

Girls have been placed in an inappropriate environment, and it appears to have had an adverse impact on the boys, too

Ministers must look again at this situation and come up with a sustainable long-term solution. The placement of girls in prisons was stopped almost a decade ago, in line with the findings of the Corston Report. Its unplanned resumption, resulting from a failure at national level to manage effectively, has not only put vulnerable girls in an inappropriate environment; it appears to have had an adverse impact on the boys in Wetherby, too.

Inspectors observed that some boys found it unfair when they were treated differently to the girls, such as the girls being allowed to wear their own clothes. (The 2019 inspection had recommended that boys in Wetherby and Keppel should be allowed to buy their own clothes.)

Many of the inspectorate’s new findings accord with what the Howard League has seen through its legal work to help children in Wetherby. Resettlement work was found to have declined, and this is an area in which our lawyers are advising and representing young people.

We have encountered impressive resettlement practitioners who work collaboratively and care about the young people they support. As the report indicates, however, accommodation is not arranged for many children in good time before their release. This is not the prison’s fault, but it is a serious problem. When the Howard League produced a step-by-step guide on resettlement, children told us that release from custody was often the most difficult part of the criminal justice journey.

Our lawyers have seen good work at Wetherby to support young people with mental health issues, although the rate of self-harm – which has risen significantly since the last inspection – illustrates the scale of need in a prison where children get only four hours per day out of their cells at weekends.

The dramatic reduction in the number of children in custody over the last decade has presented government with an opportunity to invest in prisons and make them better. Instead, they have got even worse – and Keppel’s decline reflects that.

The answer is to keep boys and girls out of these failing institutions in the first place.

Andrea Coomber


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