Girls strip searched in UK prison, tantamount to abuse, say women and girls’ charities: Women in Prison and Agenda Alliance respond to HM Inspectorate of Prisons report on Wetherby YOI

Girls strip searched in UK prison, tantamount to abuse, say women and girls’ charities

Women in Prison and Agenda Alliance respond in a joint statement

Women in Prison and Agenda Alliance have responded to a report from HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ on Wetherby Young Offender Institution, which holds girls and boys, released today (Tuesday 5th March).

We are deeply concerned to see this inspection report detail troubling treatment of children in custody, including using pain-inducing force and strip searches. In one instance, a girl was restrained and strip-searched twice by an all-male group of officers to prevent her from self-harming.

Self-harm in Wetherby YOI is the highest in the country, and girls account for “extremely high” levels of self-harm.

Agenda Alliance’s own recent research has focused on the significant rates of self-harm among young women in prison, whose needs go unmet due to lack of appropriate care paid to both their gender and age. This is no different at YOI Wetherby, where girls make up a tiny minority of the children held there. HM Inspectorate of Prisons noted that there was no effective model of custody for girls, and the YOI was “unable to meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable girls in the country.”

Sonya Ruparel, CEO of Women in Prison commented: "Reading that girls in prison have been subjected to “pain inducing techniques” and “strip searches under restraint” by those responsible for their care simply beggars belief.

This is no way to treat some of the most disadvantaged girls in our society. Girls who've been criminalised require gender specific, trauma informed support in their communities, not imprisonment and traumatisation."

Indy Cross, CEO of Agenda Alliance, commented: “It is chilling to read that male guards at YOI Wetherby felt an appropriate response to a girl in such significant distress was to strip-search her as a group. The idea that a young woman at risk of self-harm faces the use of force and further trauma as a means of ‘protection’ should shock us to our core. And yet, it is how children in custody are being treated.

Agenda Alliance’s research has shown girls need specialist, holistic, community-based support appropriate to their age and gender, not aggressive, punitive responses in male-dominated environments which are totally inappropriate for their needs.

As we have seen in reviews of previous notable cases, such as that of Child Q, strip-searches cause significant trauma and distress to those who experience them. It is likely this event will have seriously worsened this girl’s mental health, causing a vicious spiral. Girls in custody usually have complex needs and long histories of trauma, meaning they shouldn’t be imprisoned in the first place.”


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Key stats/info

Agenda Alliance’s Young Women’s Justice Project recently published ‘A Call to Action’, a briefing spotlighting the severe mental health needs of young women in custody and outlining specific steps to develop age- and gender-responsive support for them. It found that young women in custody are more likely to self-harm than other age groups:

  • In 2022, the number of self-harm incidents in custody amongst 21 to 24-year-old women surpassed all other female age groups

  • Over the previous four years, self-harm among this particular group of young women has been consistently rising

  • In 2022, 138 young women aged 21 to 24 self-harmed while in prison. On average, these young women self-harmed 34 times during the year.

Alongside more detailed calls for action, Agenda Alliance broadly recommends greater investment in diversion and prevention, and in community-based support to ensure that girls and young women can access gender-, age-, trauma- and culturally-responsive support nationwide. The full report and recommendations is available here.

Reference info:

  • HM Inspectorate of Prison report on Wetherby YOI is available on their website.

  • Previous press on girls placed at YOI Wetherby - Fury over placement of three girls at all-male YOI - Children and Young People Now

  • Women in Prison (WIP) is a national charity that delivers support for women affected by the criminal justice system in prisons, in the community and through our Women's Centres. We campaign to end the harm caused to women, their families and our communities by imprisonment.

  • Agenda Alliance exists to make a difference to the lives of women and girls who are at the sharpest end of inequality. We are an alliance of over 100 member organisations – from large, national bodies to smaller, specialist organisations – working in collaboration to influence public policy and practice to respond appropriately to women and girls with multiple, complex unmet needs.