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“Dysfunctional” custody system failing girls
Women at HMP Downview
The national youth custody system is failing to provide very vulnerable girls with the environment and support they need.

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"Frail" national system

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) published today (21 September 2022). Inspectors spoke to girls who were currently detained, girls and women who had been recently released, as well as young women who had transitioned to an adult prison after turning 18.

At the time of the inspection, there were just 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 paradoxically 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.

Complex needs

The girls held in custody had multiple and complex needs, such as past trauma, self-harm, substance misuse, neuro-divergency 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, inspectors unsurprisingly found that 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.


The inspectors identified some very concerning outcomes in the area of safety; girls were 12 times more likely than boys to self-harm and more likely to be restrained, often in response to self-harm. Inspectors acknowledged that it is sometimes necessary to use restraint to keep a girl safe, but found that too often they were left alone in their cell after the restraint without additional support. One girl we spoke to was restrained six times in one night in response to her self-harm. This was clearly traumatising and could potentially increase the risk of further attempts. Inspectors called for the vicious cycle of self-harm and restraint to be addressed urgently.


Inspectors found that the children’s estate made good preparations for girls transitioning to adult prisons, but that this preparation often had little impact on their day-to-day experience once they arrived. Inspectors spoke to a number of 18-year-olds in adult prisons who felt unsupported and did not know how to get everyday requests resolved.


Inspectors found that preparation for release was undermined by a lack of support in the community; this is also a persistent problem for boys leaving custody. Three of the seven girls who had left custody last year and whose cases were examined by the inspection team remained in the community. All three of these girls faced difficulties accessing their accommodation, education or health care support. In one case, accommodation was only arranged two days before release and the girl in question was placed in sheltered housing normally used for the elderly.

Outcomes for the remaining four girls were poor; three remained in a secure placement under welfare or health care legislation and the other girl had reoffended and was back in custody.

HMYOI Wetherby

The thematic review was published on the same day as HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ independent review of progress at Wetherby YOI and the adjacent Keppel unit. As in the joint thematic, 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.

The inspectors noted that there had been improvements in resettlement provision; weekend visits had been reintroduced and leadership in this area had been strengthened. However, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, concluded that: 

“the pace of change needs to improve in order for outcomes for children to change meaningfully”.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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