Letter: Keep young girls out of prison

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Keep young girls

out of prison

Sir The Howard League welcomes the recent High Court ruling that the automatic placement of young female offenders in adult women's jails for assessment and allocation is unlawful (report, 20 August). However, we dispute the assertion, widely reported, that eight out of 14 women's prisons have specialist wings for young offenders.

As part of its inquiry investigating the use of prison custody for girls aged under 18, the Howard League has recently visited nine prisons holding 15-, 16- and 17-year-old girls. We found that these prisons did not have special units for either juveniles or young offenders and did not provide a separate regime or culture as, we believe, Parliament intended they should.

Instead we found girls as young as 15 mixing fully with adult prisoners convicted of a range of offences including violent and sexual crimes against minors. The girls were subjected to an environment where women regularly self-mutilated and attempted suicide, where bullying was endemic and where drugs were widely available.

There were few specialist educational and training facilities and often girls had no opportunity to take part in social skills courses such as anger management and drug awareness, and if they did they were invariably mixed in with adults.

Staff were not trained to deal with youngsters who often display complex and difficult behaviour as a result of having experienced a combination of abuse, serious loss and drug and alcohol dependency.

The placement of these already damaged young people in the harsh environment of prison only serves to deepen the problems which lie behind their offending behaviour.

If the Government is really committed to reducing youth crime it must take measures which genuinely tackle offending behaviour and abandon the populist and punitive approach of the last Conservative government.

A first stop would be to move beyond the remit of this High Court decision and outlaw the detention of juvenile girls in any prison establishment.

FRAN RUSSELL

Youth Policy Officer

London N19

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