Chief Inspector’S Report On Wetherby (1)


CEO blog

Chief Inspector’s Report on Wetherby points to wider issues in the care of vulnerable children and adults in prison

Charlie Taylor, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has today published a disturbing report on the treatment of children and young people at HMYOI Wetherby, with the spotlight on three girls held in the establishment. The report praises the efforts of the Governor in bringing stability to the establishment, and there are some notable positives, but the accounts of suicidal young girls being forcibly strip-searched by groups of male officers have hit the headlines and are the topic of much-outraged comments on social media.

The motivation of the officers concerned appears to have been to protect the children from harming themselves. The establishment gave the reason for the strip searches and painful use of force being carried out by male officers as being due to female officers having been previously assaulted. The job of a prison officer is an extremely challenging one, and we were not there to witness what occurred. However, the fact that a small number of very damaged and behaviourally challenging girls are held in Wetherby and are being ‘manhandled’ speaks to a far wider problem. And there is no doubt that what occurred would have added to the damage to children whose young lives have been unimaginably hard. Many will have suffered abuse and violence at the hands of men.

Along with many other experts in our sector, we see this report as pointing to a range of longstanding issues within the prison system. HMPPS has been starved of resources for decades. Women and girls are all too often held in establishments which were built and designed for adult men. There are well-reported issues with recruitment and retention, and so many establishments lack sufficient frontline officers and healthcare staff. Equally importantly, regimes - what we provide for people behind bars to keep them sane and to support their preparation for life after prison - have still not recovered from Covid, and far too many people suffer deteriorating mental and physical health, sitting for endless hours in locked cells. Self-harm is at record levels.

It is clear that we need a fresh approach to how we care for children and young people who are a risk to others and themselves. The same is true for women, for people in prison with mental ill health, and many other groups. We can learn from other systems around the world. We need to think differently about our justice system and invest properly in it. We need a workforce strategy to introduce the best social work and psychologically informed practice to improve the training and the professional standing of people working in our correctional services. And we need to ensure our secure estate includes a wide range of specialised single-sex, therapeutic and trauma-informed provisions for the most vulnerable and challenging children and adults in the care of the State. We need to give people in prison and the staff who work with them hope.

HMPPS leadership are accountable, but for far too long, their room for manoeuvre has been limited by political populism and short-termism. This Government promised a reform of mental health legislation. It didn’t happen. It promised a Royal Commission on prisons. That didn’t happen either. It promised to deliver the female offender strategy. Instead, it promised to build more prison cells. If all politicians have to say about prisons is that we need to be building more of them, we are at a dead end.

The job of the Chief Inspector is to inspect and report on the treatment and conditions of prisoners in individual prisons. We can only hope that better solutions will be found for caring for all the children and young people currently in Wetherby. But there will be more reports like this until our political leaders, whoever they may be, understand that we need more than cheap point-scoring headlines on getting tough on crime. We desperately need a long-term vision and strategy for our justice system.

Andy Keen-Downs
Pact CEO