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Move girls out of Wetherby prison

Join our campaign to ensure that girls are moved out of a boys' prison and into suitable accommodation where they can be cared for and supported.

Sign our petition and tell the government to move girls out of Wetherby prison

On 5 March 2024, HM Inspectorate of Prisons published a distressing report on Wetherby, a prison in West Yorkshire holding boys and girls as young as 15.

Inspectors found that children had been forcibly stripped and subjected to pain-inducing restraint by prison staff without adequate oversight or accountability. They were shocked to discover, on two occasions, all-male teams of officers forcibly restraining a girl to remove her clothing to prevent her self-harming.

In response to the many media enquiries and calls from the public that we have received, we have created a dedicated page on our website to help people find out more about the problems inside Wetherby prison and our work to support children in custody.

We have also started a petition, calling on the government to move girls out of Wetherby. Please join our campaign by signing the petition here.

On 15 March 2024, we published a blogpost providing an update on the campaign. You can read it here.

The images on this page are taken from the inspectorate’s report.

Anson exercise yard at Wetherby prison.

“Simply not acceptable.” What inspectors found…

Inspectors visited Wetherby in November and December 2023. They found that the prison was holding 162 boys and three girls. Almost half of the children had previously been in local authority care. Three-quarters of the children had a disability. Two-thirds of the children surveyed by the inspection team said that they had been restrained by staff. The prison had the highest rate of self-harm of any jail in the country.

In his introduction to the report, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor explained how three girls came to be living in Wetherby, a prison designed for boys.

He wrote: “Wetherby is one of three different types of institution that hold the seven currently imprisoned girls in England and Wales. Nationally there is not a coherent plan for caring for these girls and what was originally only temporary accommodation at Wetherby after the closure of Rainsbrook secure training centre has now become the destination for those who STCs and secure children’s homes will not, or cannot, accommodate.

“The result has been pressure on staff who, while doing their best, have not had the training or do not possess the expertise to care for these girls, most of whom require specialist provision. As a result, we came across two incidents where a girl was using her clothes to make ligatures and had had her clothing removed by male officers. This is simply not acceptable.”

Twenty-four children had been strip searched in the last 12 months, with 12 of those occurring under restraint. Pain-inducing restraint techniques had been applied nine times in the last 12 months and on every occasion had been deemed inappropriate by the Independent Review of Restraint Panel. Footage of use of force incidents was not being reviewed consistently, and inspectors found that one restraint, which resulted in a child being injured, had not been referred to senior managers.

Some children were getting as little as half an hour a day outside their cells. The heating was unreliable, and some children slept in their day clothes to keep warm because their cell window vents were broken.

It is devastating that girls and boys in distress, who need care and support, are being hurt, violated and traumatised further in Wetherby prison.

Anson cell at Wetherby prison.

It is virtually impossible to imagine the damage caused to the girl who, made to live in a prison designed for boys, became so distressed to the point of wanting to harm herself, and was then forcibly stripped by a group of men, not once but twice.

It is appalling that the state’s care for vulnerable children should sink to such depths, and we applaud the inspectorate and national, regional and local media for shining a light on this scandal.

On the morning that the inspection report was published, BBC News and the Guardian ran it as the top story on their websites. We have also spoken to broadcast journalists at 5 News and several radio stations, and seen coverage by Sky News, the Mirror, the Independent, the Spectator, Cosmopolitan, the Evening Standard, the Yorkshire Post and The Justice Gap among others.

The Howard League has consistently opposed the decision to place girls in Wetherby, and this shocking report spells out why.

We have raised this issue repeatedly in meetings with ministers at the Ministry of Justice, urging them to take action and move the girls to more suitable accommodation.

This is a prison that was already failing boys, and it is even less equipped to meet the specific needs of girls. Some of the inspectors’ findings raise significant safeguarding concerns and potential breaches of human rights.

Prison is no place for a child. Ministers must act swiftly to move the girls out of Wetherby and into more suitable accommodation, such as secure children’s homes.

The next step is to do the same for boys, and to make sure that no more children are exposed to such cruelty.

You can help by signing our petition, calling on ministers to move girls out of Wetherby.

This report has not come out of the blue.

Occupied cell at Wetherby prison.

It comes only a few weeks after official statistics, published by the Ministry of Justice, revealed the shocking rate of self-harm among girls in custody. Although girls represent only 2% of the population of children in custody, they accounted for 63% of all self-harm incidents recorded in the 12 months to September 2023. Girls who self-harmed did so on average 75.2 times per year, compared to 3.7 times for boys.

The statistics also showed disproportionate use of force against girls; there were 4,353.6 incidents of use of force per 100 girls, compared to 815.1 for boys. Preventing self-harm is the most common reason given by staff for use of force against girls.

Almost two decades have passed since we asked Lord Carlile KC to lead an independent inquiry into the use of restraint, solitary confinement and strip searching in penal institutions for children. The inquiry concluded that girls might find being strip searched particularly distressing.

The inquiry’s report, published in 2006, stated: “Within the custodial context a strip search is more than just the removal of clothes for a visual inspection. It is a manifestation of power relations. A strip search involves adult staff forcing a child to undress in front of them. Forcing a person to strip takes all control away and can be demeaning and dehumanising. The power is compounded by the threat, or actual use of, force to those showing any reluctance to strip.”

In 2018, we gave evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, raising concerns over the use of strip searching, particularly in relation to children who have had previous negative sexual experiences or girls who are pregnant.

As recently as 2022, we published a blogpost about a girl’s experience at Wetherby. Its title was: “I can’t win”: How it feels to be a girl in a boys’ prison.

We have started a petition, calling on the government to move girls out of Wetherby. Please join our campaign by signing the petition here.


Wetherby prison exercise yard.

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