Three girls have been held in an all-boys prison for at least eight months owing to “appalling” and systemic failures in the prison system, MPs and campaigners have said.
The girls, aged 15 to 18, were transferred to the UK’s biggest prison for boys following the enforced closure of a privately run centre for safety reasons last year, the Guardian has learned.
The teenagers have been held at the previously all-male Wetherby young offenders’ institute in West Yorkshire since last June.
An inspection report found that they self-harmed and were subject to pain-inducing restraint techniques on 12 occasions – a higher proportion than the boys – according to an inspection report.
Carolyne Willow, director of the children’s rights charity Article 39, said it was “appalling” that highly vulnerable children were “being put into completely the wrong environment and predictably suffering harm as a result”.
She added: “It is unforgivable that ministers and statutory child welfare agencies were not able to work together to find a humane alternative to locking up three girls in the country’s largest prison for boys.”
A cross-party group of MPs said the detention of the three girls alongside 140 boys represented a failure in effective planning at national level.
The girls were taken to Wetherby after being moved from Rainsbrook secure training centre (STC), which was closed by the government after it emerged that children were being locked up for more than 23 hours a day.
In June last year, the government announced the immediate closure of Rainsbrook, in Warwickshire, after the contractors, MTC Novo, failed to deliver changes ordered by the then justice secretary, Robert Buckland, following a damning report that exposed serious safety concerns.
At the time, the Ministry of Justice said the 33 children, boys and girls would be taken to safe and secure centres across the youth prison estate. The Guardian has learned that three girls were transferred to the all-male Wetherby prison. They are held on a wing separate from the 140 boys.
MPs Jackie Doyle-Price and Debbie Abraham, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in the penal system, said it was “unacceptable that the three girls have been placed in Wetherby because of a failure at a national level to plan effectively”.
They added: “Ministers must look again at this situation and come up with a sustainable long-term solution that ensures girls get the care and support they need.”
A report on youth jail by the chief inspector of prisons, Charlie Taylor, was published last week. Taylor found Wetherby’s use of pain-inducing restraint techniques were the highest of all comparable prisons.
The three girls had been restrained 12 times in the six months they had been at Wetherby at that point, significantly higher than the rate for boys.
And of the 348 incidents of self-harm in six months, 14 were suffered by the three girls.
The inspection, last December, criticised aspects of the environment and regime for all inmates.
It says children spent less than six hours a day out of their cells, reduced to four hours at weekends, which inspectors said was not enough, noting the accommodation on the wings as “prison like” and some of the exercise yards “resembled those in high security jails”. Inspectors observed “children standing around in bare yards with nothing to do”.
However, inspectors said children in crisis or at risk of self-harm had spoken positively about the support they received at the jail. One child told them:” It’s the best support I have ever had, in or out of prison.”
The Wetherby inspection report found that three-quarters of the children had been in the care of their local authority at some point before custody. Nearly 30% had been excluded from school, and nearly a third were not in education, employment or training before custody.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Inspectors recognised that staff at HMP Wetherby have rapidly created a caring and supportive environment for the small number of girls placed there after the closure of Rainsbrook STC.
“The Keppel unit is separate from the rest of the population and has been adapted temporarily to support the needs of girls.”