Again, this title is technically incorrect: minors are not imprisoned or given custodial sentences, but are ‘detained’. They currently receive orders for detention
and training, detention for a specified period, or detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Section 226 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 adds detention for life or detention for public protection to this custodial repertoire for the under-18s. The period of detention for all these orders may take place in a prison service establishment (generally a young offender institution), a secure training centre or a local authority (social services) secure children’s home. In practice, many girls and boys are in prison. The DfES website in mid-2005 gave a figure of 2,700 juveniles (15-17 year olds) in custody, either sentenced or on remand, of whom approximately 80 were females. Male juveniles are normally held in young offender institutions, but provisions for female juveniles have been unsatisfactory.
A recent report of the Howard League for Penal Reform gives a figure of 90 girls aged under 18 in prison on any one day and points out that, unlike for boys, there are no prisons which are solely for girls. Sentenced girls are therefore held in four designated prisons, where they may be placed on a separate wing for juveniles or on wings which also hold women aged over 18. The report provides evidence of what amounts to discriminatory treatment of girls in custodial establishments, stemming from the much smaller numbers of young female detainees and from their different needs. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, has implicitly accepted that justice for girls requires that they have facilities specifically geared towards their needs. She has argued that no girl aged under 17 should be held in prison, given the lack of separate facilities for girls, and has drawn attention to examples of girls inappropriately placed in custody, such as a pregnant 16-year – old girl and a 17-year-old girl with serious mental health problems. She points out that this is sometimes because the appropriate facilities are not available. Five new 16-bed units for juveniles in female prisons were opened by Autumn 2006 to provide specialist provision for this age group; this will improve matters.
It is also encouraging that Owers is aware that ‘many of the children coming into prisons have been abused, and that the issue of strip-searching is, consequently, a very sensitive one’. For girls in particular, such intimate searches are problematic because there is evidence to suggest that girls are more likely than boys to be victims of sexual abuse. For example, the NSPCC’s international survey of studies of the prevalence and incidence of child sexual abuse reveals higher figures for women and girls in all the jurisdictions included in the survey. Likewise, a study of children on child protection registers in England and Wales on 31 March 2003 found there were more girls than boys on the registers for sexual abuse, although the situation was reversed in relation to physical abuse. A review of North
American research reaches similar conclusions. This should also be noted in relation to the fact that prison staff may not have been properly vetted. Owers’s recent inspection of Holloway Prison revealed that no adult working with children and young people had been subject to the required checks from the Criminal Records Bureau.
Juveniles in Custody, a report by the Prison Inspectorate, also found gender differences in regard to feelings of insecurity: over one-third of the cohort of 15-18 year olds surveyed had felt unsafe at some time whilst in custody, but this included all the 15-year-old girls. These and other findings emphasise what is already known: that girls and young women in prison are very vulnerable and often psychologically damaged and that they frequently self-harm. In 2003, for example, women constituted 6 per cent of the prison population but were responsible for 46 per cent of recorded incidents of self-harm.
A research study undertaken in 2002-3 aimed to shed light on this, using a sample of 15 women aged 19-50 years. Whilst this research did not include minors, its results reveal in its sample of women histories of self-harm and suicide attempts going back to early adolescence, and also a disproportionate incidence of chronic mental illness, sexual abuse, assault and rape. All but one of the women interviewed said they had wanted to die, and all were in custodial situations where their trauma and medical problems were intensified. There is no evidence to suggest that the situation is considerably better for girls aged under 19 who are in detention.
As has happened in adult prisons, one problem is that there may not be sufficient staff trained to deal with the specific problems of vulnerable (young) females: the title of the Howard League 2004 Report, Advice, Understanding and Underwear, gives an indication of what these might be. Another problem is that – with only four institutions – there is a greater likelihood of being placed far from home. The Response from the Gender and Justice Policy Network to the Halliday Report made the point that, with the serious shortage of places for girls and young women in young offender institutions in the south of England, many girls are transferred to places of detention in the north of the country, ‘increasing the distance from home and community and making the maintenance of family ties more difficult’.