Howard League urges ministers to move girls out of Wetherby prison

The Howard League for Penal Reform has responded to HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ report on Wetherby prison, published today (Tuesday 5 March). 
Inspectors visited the prison, which holds boys and girls as young as 15, in November and December 2023. They discovered that children had been forcibly stripped and subjected to pain-inducing restraint by staff without adequate oversight or accountability. They twice found all-male teams of officers forcibly restraining a girl to remove her clothing to prevent her self-harming. 
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.  

Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.), Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “It is devastating that girls and boys in distress who need care and support are being hurt, violated and traumatised further in Wetherby prison, where three-quarters of the children have a disability and rates of self-harm are the highest in the country. 
“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 could sink to such depths. 
“The Howard League has consistently opposed the decision to place girls in Wetherby, and this shocking report spells out why. 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 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.”  
The report 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 the Howard League asked Lord Carlile QC 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, the Howard League 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.