Violence on rise at Wetherby Youth Offenders Institute

Wetherby Young Offender Institution. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.
Wetherby Young Offender Institution. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

Violence is increasing at Wetherby Young Offender Institution, with more attacks by gangs of boys and violence against staff, an inspection report has found.

It is ‘not uncommon’ for weapons to be used in the secure unit, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons states, and some boys were locked in their cells for up to 23 hours.

The inspection report said: “Some of these incidents were very serious and involved gangs of boys attacking a single young person. We watched CCTV recordings showing groups of boys kicking and punching each other.

The use of weapons was not uncommon and we saw more incidents where weapons were used against unarmed boys than at the previous inspection. Much of the violence that we observed was reckless and unpredictable.”

Inspectors say that attacks on staff were ‘particularly’ concerning and had resulted in bad injuries including a broken nose. Staff were forced to take more than a week off work due to injuries following attacks from inmates on 19 occasions in 2014.

The report was published on Tuesday following an unannounced inspection at the institution, which holds 204 juveniles, in January. Inspectors had previously raised concerns about group attacks in a report in March.

The Prison Officers Association said it was ‘not surprised’ by the damning report.

A spokesman for the union blamed staffing cuts for the increase in violent attacks.

Glyn Travis said: “The short term gains that the Government keep pushing will have long-term cost implications to the tax payer.

“The Prison Service is reluctant to accept that the reduction in staff ‎is the real reason that the levels of violence in our prisons has increased significantly. The hidden costs of violence has to be exposed and prisons must be staffed to ensure they are safe and secure.”

In October a former prison officer was awarded a £56,500 payout over an attack when a inmate tried to gouge his eyes out.

The latest report found that incidences of bullying at the secure unit have almost doubled while the number of juveniles self-harming has fallen.

Staff were highly praised in the report which said they ‘engaged positively with boys; they were approachable and clearly interested in the boys’ welfare.’

The youngsters, aged between 15 and 18, often went weeks without contact from their families, with just 28 per cent having weekly visits from family members.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the treatment of the youngsters should not be tolerated.

He said: “This is the latest in a long series of reports showing how safety has deteriorated in prisons, but it is particularly concerning that this should be happening in an institution charged with caring for children.
“Violence is rising in Wetherby, with attacks on boys and staff becoming more frequent and more severe.

“One in three children is locked up during the working day, and some spend as much as 23 hours a day in their cells.

“Why is it that, when it comes to locking up children in prisons, we tolerate the unacceptable? We would never tolerate this treatment for our own children, and yet for some reason we allow for boys in Wetherby to be treated very differently.”

Despite ‘significant challenges’, Prison Inspector Nick Hardwick said: “Wetherby remained well-led and staff remained calm, measured and resilient. In most respects Wetherby provided the boys it held with positive opportunities to progress.”

Michael Spurr, chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service, said: “I’m pleased that the Chief Inspector found that Wetherby continues to be a well-run establishment with skilled and professional staff.

“As the Inspectorate report makes clear, Wetherby manages a complex and challenging population.

“Tackling violence and providing a safe environment is the Governor’s top priority and we will use the recommendations in the report to support this work.”