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Girls in custody – outnumbered, locked up and overlooked?
Pippa Goodfellow examines the use of penal custody for girls in England and Wales for the Griffin Society

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A new (29 May 2019) research paper by Pippa Goodfellow for the Griffin Society examines the use of penal custody for girls in England and Wales. Entitled “Outnumbered, locked up and overlooked?“, the report analyses recent custody data, to investigate how penal detention is being used for girls from a gendered perspective.


The overall numbers of girls in the youth justice system and in the secure estate have fallen rapidly over the past decade. The recent decline in the use of custody is very welcome but poses significant challenges for the commissioning of placements, custodial establishments and resettlement services. Girls have become increasingly overlooked by the penal system at both a policy and a practice level and their diminishing minority in custody has exacerbated the marginalisation of their needs. Relative to boys the numbers of girls in the system and in custody are low, but the aetiology of their offending and particular vulnerabilities they display provide the justification for the need to consider them from a gendered perspective. Analysis of the existing literature has underlined the damaging and disruptive nature of incarceration, identified a lack of policy focus on the female population in the youth secure estate and found a paucity of available data about the nature of
recent custodial sentencing, remand and placements for girls.


This research has found that the majority (56%) of girls held on remand do not subsequently receive a custodial sentence. Nearly one third (32%) of girls were remanded to custody for non-violent alleged offences. More than half of remanded girls who were not given a custodial sentence were detained for less than three weeks and three quarters of remands were for periods of less than two months. These findings suggest that for many girls they are experiencing the equivalent of serving a short custodial sentence prior to receiving a community-based disposal at court. Ethnic disproportionality of girls on remand is significantly higher (36% BAME) than in the sentenced population (28% BAME).

Sentencing and the custody threshold

Analysis of sentencing data has revealed that one third (34%) of girls were sentenced to custody for non-violent offences and three fifths were sentenced to custody for offences that were at the less serious end of the spectrum of offending (according to YJB guidelines). One fifth (22%) of girls were sentenced to custody for primary offences that were neither violent nor in the more serious gravity range. This research also highlights the prevalence of short sentences imposed, with three quarters of girls being sentenced to a custodial period of six months or less and 90% of girls sentenced to a custodial period of 12 months or less. More than one third (37%) of all Detention and Training Orders (DTOs) were for just four-months in length, with a custodial element of two months. Concerningly, the number of girls passing through the secure estate for very brief periods on short sentences, means that a larger number of girls are experiencing custody than a ‘snapshot’ at a static point in time might suggest.

Women at HMP Downview
© Andy Aitchison

Placements of girls into custody

The sharp fall in the number of girls being admitted to custody over the past decade has seen female places in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) decommissioned but has not resulted in all girls being transferred into welfare-based and child-centred forms of provision. The majority (60%) of girls are initially placed in Secure Training Centres (STCs), but it is likely that transfers from Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs) to STCs throughout the period of detention in custody may mean that the presence of girls in STCs is even greater. A higher proportion of BAME girls (67%) were placed in an STC compared to white girls (58%), potentially indicating that they are being assessed as less vulnerable.

Distance from home

As the number of girls in custody has fallen, places have been decommissioned and the available placements are now more thinly spread across the country. This research confirms that girls in England and Wales are held on average 72 miles from home, compared to 49 miles for all children. Over half (56%) of girls were held more than 50 miles away from home and nearly a quarter (24%) over 100 miles from home. Longer distances from home were an issue for girls across every region, and particularly so for girls from Wales. 

Moving on from youth custody

The vast majority of girls are released into the community from youth custody, highlighting the importance of coordinated and consistent resettlement support, tailored to meet gender-specific needs. Many of the issues highlighted in this report exacerbate the challenges faced by girls upon their release from custody and attempts by professionals to effectively support their transition. Very small numbers of girls sent to custody from each geographical area mean that there is a need for distinct support and guidance for YOTs and their partners to support the resettlement of females in the community. For the small number of girls who are transferred to adult women’s prisons, careful and individualised planning and support is critical through a significant transition where they will be particularly vulnerable.


The report points out that the small number of girls in custody at any one time disguises the true picture of the number detained over a longer period, caused by a frequent flow of girls through custody for brief periods on short custodial sentences and periods of remand. 

Girls in custody were assessed as having high levels of concerns over multiple vulnerabilities and problems, while the majority were placed into penal institutions lacking adequate safety and care. In the context of what
is known about the impact of custody on girls, these periods in detention are likely to be causing huge damage and disruption to girls’ lives and negatively impacting their self-esteem and wellbeing.

Pippa Goodfellow points out that the imprisonment of girls has been a neglected area recently and calls for a strategic review of the use of custody for girls.

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

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