Dysfunctional custody system failing girls

Read the report: A thematic review of outcomes for girls in custody

The national youth custody system is failing to provide very vulnerable girls with the environment and support they need, according to a joint thematic inspection by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, HM Inspectorate of Probation, Ofsted, Care Quality Commission (CQC) and Care Inspectorate Wales (CIW). Inspectors spoke to girls who were currently detained, girls and women who had been recently released, and young women who had transitioned to an adult prison after turning 18.

At the time of the inspection, there were 14 girls in custody across the whole of England and Wales, all of whom were held in secure children’s homes (SCHs) and Wetherby young offender institution (YOI). Legislation required SCHs to refuse a placement if they felt they could not meet a girl’s needs, which led to a small number of girls with high levels of need being placed in Wetherby YOI, which had the fewest resources to support them.

The Chief Inspectors of Prisons, Probation, Ofsted and CIW, and the Chief Executive of CQC, described the national system as “frail”:

“We observed many dedicated frontline staff doing their best in extremely difficult circumstances. Despite this the custodial estate did not function effectively and too often girls with the highest level of need were placed in establishments with the least resource.

“Outcomes for girls in key areas were poor and they faced significant challenges when they were released or transferred to the adult estate.”

The girls held in custody had multiple and complex needs, such as past trauma, self-harm, substance misuse, neurodivergency and mental ill-health, and some were remanded to custody simply because there was no other placement available, either in hospital or the community. However, the custodial environment was often incapable of providing girls with the therapeutic environment they needed.

Provision for girls was uneven across the estate; at SCHs girls spent significantly more time out of their rooms than at Wetherby. However, in general and across both types of establishment, inspectors observed good relationships between staff members and girls, and frontline staff doing their very best to care for them, despite the challenges. Data showed that girls were 83% more likely than boys to be assailants, and evidence from our inspections of YOIs and STCs revealed that girls were more likely to assault staff than other children. Girls in custody were also 12 times more likely to self-harm than boys, and staff too often resorted to restraint to prevent this. The report highlights the urgent need for the cycle of self-harm and restraint to be addressed.

The thematic review is published on the same day as HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ independent review of progress at Wetherby YOI and the adjacent Keppel unit, which follows up recommendations made following inspections in 2019 and 2022. As in the joint thematic, HMI Prisons inspectors found the establishment, which mainly holds boys, was struggling to cope with the high needs of the six girls in its care. Boys and girls were still spending long periods of time locked up, and staff shortages meant that elements of the regime were often curtailed. There had been improvements in resettlement provision; weekend visits had been reintroduced and leadership in this area had been strengthened.

Charlie Taylor, Chief Inspector of Prisons said of Wetherby and Keppel report:

“These judgments will be disappointing for leaders and staff at Wetherby, particularly after a challenging few months at the site. Fundamentally, however, the pace of change needs to improve in order for outcomes for children to change meaningfully.”

Notes to editors

  1. Read ‘A thematic review of outcomes for girls in custody’, published on 21 September 2022.
  2. This thematic review was carried out by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, HM Inspectorate of Probation, Ofsted, Care Quality Commission (CQC) and Care Inspectorate Wales (CIW).
  3. Read the Wetherby YOI and the Keppel unit independent review of progress, also published on 21 September 2022. More information about independent reviews of progress can be found at: https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/about-our-inspections/independent-reviews-of-progress-irps/
  4. A former naval base, Wetherby became a borstal in 1958 and has since changed its role from an open youth custody centre to a closed youth custody centre and is now a dedicated establishment for children between 15 and 18.
  5. The independent review of progress took place from 1–10 August 2022.
  6. Please contact Tamsin Williamson at tamsin.williamson@hmiprisons.gov.uk if you would like more information.