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I am both shocked and appalled by the details in Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor’s report yesterday about a girl in a young offender institution (YOI) who had her clothes removed twice under restraint, by an all-male team of prison officers. 

The same inspection report that failed Wetherby on the grounds of safety and failure to provide purposeful activity for the children in its care, also found instances of intrusive and traumatic strip searching of girls, young people forced to live in freezing cold cells, and concerning use of ‘pain-inducing techniques.’   

The failures documented in this repot are quite clearly unacceptable and highlight two major issues: one about girls being kept in YOIs with inappropriate staffing and standards that do not meet their needs, and secondly the issue of YOIs more broadly not being fit for purpose. 

As Children’s Commissioner, I have been sounding the alarm about the safety and conditions for children in custody, particularly those who are most vulnerable to risks like poor mental health or exploitation. I have deep concerns about these risks in YOIs – not only at Wetherby but at others around the country. 

Simply put, this girl should not have been in a young offenders institute – she should have been in a secure setting that could support her needs effectively and safely.  

The number of girls in custody is less than five per cent of the total number of young people in young offender institutions. They are extremely vulnerable and have high needs, and are only in settings like Wetherby’s Keppel Unit or Oakhill Secure Training Centre because other more appropriate placements, such as Secure Children’s Homes or secure mental health settings, do not consider themselves equipped to take them.  

I am really concerned about the lack of a national plan for the placement and care for these girls. 

Wetherby has the highest rates of self-harm incidents of any prison in the country, and the use of force against girls is very high. The report found that girls are frequently being strip searched, physically restrained, and having their clothing cut off and replaced with anti-ligature clothing.  

Girls should not be strip searched by male staff; this is a contravention of the rules. It is both deeply inappropriate and potentially traumatic for these girls who need specialist support and care. Settings need to be appropriately staffed to look after the children who live there within the statutory safeguards.  

Despite the best efforts of many dedicated staff at Wetherby, it is clearly not working. These children need specialist care in suitable settings rather than in large majority-male custodial settings like YOIs. 

Earlier this week I wrote to the Justice Minister Alex Chalk to ask him how he is improving conditions since I last raised these concerns with him. My team and I will be visiting Wetherby as soon as possible to speak to the children there. 

We need a new vision and system of secure care. We need more, smaller settings closer to where children live that can deliver education and therapeutic support safely.  This needs to be done as a matter of urgency so more children aren’t failed or put at risk.  

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