What's a girl doing in a place like this?

It is now unlawful to hold teenage girls in adult prisons, but, says Angela Devlin, that may make them worse off
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The Independent Online
Yesterday this newspaper reported the shocking findings of a report on HMP Styal, a women's prison in Cheshire. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, heard from prisoners that "overt lesbian activity and drug use by some prisoners in the grounds and in the houses were ignored by staff".

Last Tuesday the High Court ruled that it was unlawful to hold a girl of 16 in prison alongside adult female offenders. The girl, known only as F, had been sent for 15 days to Risley prison. The High Court released her on bail and sent her instead to a prison with a unit for young offenders. This girl is now at HMP Styal.

The use of prison for girls aged 15 to 17 increased by 110 per cent in the period 1992 to 1995, and there are currently about 250 young female offenders in detention. As there are no dedicated Young Offender Institutions for young women (as there are for young men), the practice has been to send them to adult institutions for assessment, and then on to jails such as Styal with dedicated young offender units. But should teenage girls be sent to adult prisons at all?

At HMP Bullwood Hall in Essex, Kestrel Wing is officially designated for young offenders. But in practice the wing is not used exclusively for girls under 21, and prison officers fear the effect on vulnerable young women.

A male prison officer on Kestrel Wing explains: "Here we combine young offenders and much older women, which makes life difficult, as we obviously can't treat them all the same. Bullwood Hall is one of only two prisons secure enough for serious offenders at the beginning of their sentences. So alongside women in their thirties and forties who have committed horrendous crimes, we have 15-year-old girls who shouldn't be here at all. There just aren't enough female secure units around the country for young girls like these."

Few prison officers working in women's prisons have been given any special training to deal with damaged and damaging youngsters. Last year the Trust for the Study of Adolescence and the Prison Service jointly produced an excellent training pack for prison officers, "Understanding and Working with Young Women in Custody". It explains why imprisoned girls, many of whom are victims of neglect and abuse, are much more likely than older women to challenge authority, to commit assaults on other prisoners and staff, and to harm themselves. But the Kestrel officer said he had never heard of it.

Patsy was 15 when she arrived at Bullwood Hall and was sent to Kestrel - the youngest prisoner there. Her tragic childhood, with its history of physical and sexual abuse and expulsion from school, ended when she attacked another teenage girl with a knife. The girl had taken away Patsy's boyfriend, the only person with whom she had ever had a steady relationship. Yet Patsy received no special counselling or training, and had to fit in as best she could with older women in education classes and other activities.

Mixing middle-aged women with teenagers has a damaging effect on the older prisoners too. Liz, at 39 one of the oldest women housed on Kestrel, feels resentful: `It's a nightmare in here. The noise level is sometimes unbearable and the young girls play their music full blast all the time. The prison authorities keep older women like me on this wing because they think we help to keep the younger ones quiet. But we've got no control over the drugs they get hold of. It's true what they say about prison being the university of crime. I've seen young girls of 17 coming in here who've never even smoked a joint, but they go out raving smack addicts."

Sir David Ramsbotham was horrified when in his second week in office he found four 15-year-old girls being held at Holloway, one of them in the pregnant women's unit, "because the prison didn't know where else to put her". In his report on women's prisons, published last month, he particularly deplored the holding of young girls in Durham's top security H wing, where there are several women convicted of Schedule One offences against juveniles.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has just completed an investigation of the conditions under which girls are held in British prisons. Researchers found 15-year-old girls held alongside highly disturbed prisoners, especially at Risley and Bullwood Hall. Many were victims of serious bullying, several had mutilated themselves and some had attempted suicide. No special provision was made for their education. The Howard League said that the conditions in which they were held were in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Following last week's High Court ruling, the Prison Service has identified about 50 girls between 15 and 21 to whom the new order applies. Measures are already being taken to move them to prisons with young offender wings, though officials acknowledge that this will mean some being moved far from home. Risley prison officers said young girls were in tears because they feared being sent off to HMP New Hall near Wakefield. This prison has a young offender unit, but the girls would find themselves the other side of the Pennines, miles away from families and friends in Manchester. To treat vulnerable juvenile girls in this way can only exacerbate their already desperate problems.

Names have been changed. The writer's latest book about prisons, `Invisible Women', will be published in January by Waterside Press.