Wetherby YOI and its Keppel Unit are changing perceptions of prison

A visit to a Young Offender Institution that is breaking new ground in rehabilitating troubled children

Tucked behind a racecourse and nestled in the Yorkshire countryside, sits one of the largest children’s prisons in Western Europe: HM Young Offender Institution (YOI) Wetherby.

All grey functional bungalows and neat clipped lawns, the site was once a naval base, but security has been tightened for its current purpose. Only a topiary footballer outside the governor’s office reminds visitors that this adult-looking prison is now home to 314 boys.

They come to Wetherby to serve a variety of sentences, mostly for theft, violence or drug offences. They are aged between 15 and 18 years old, but complex needs make many seem younger. Will Styles, the governor, says his staff rarely forget this. “We’re not just administering punishments,” he says.”We’re also caring for, and rehabilitating, some very troubled children.”

Although national custody levels are falling, England still has the highest youth incarceration rate in Europe, while the number of children held on remand, or imprisoned for breaching licences or community orders, remains high. Only last month the inquest into the suicide of a 15-year-old boy imprisoned for breaching his licence hit the headlines.

Liam McManus was sent to Lancaster Farms YOI in 2007 for breaching a supervision order, despite a known history of self-harm and vulnerability. He was found dead by staff with just 23 days of his sentence left to serve. Suicides are the “tip of the iceberg”, says Deborah Coles of the charity Inquest. “The level of self-harm and vulnerability among these children is shocking. Many of these institutions aren’t fit for purpose.”

Tragic past

Styles is well aware of the criticisms besetting YOIs and is protective of Wetherby. It has, after all, had its share of tragedy: four boys died here from 1993 to 2001. But Styles, governor since 2006, is keen to highlight some of the progress happening behind Wetherby’s locked gates.

This progress is most apparent in the new Keppel Unit, where a culture of enhanced and individualised support is being fostered. Even the black ballpoint pens are inscribed: “HMYOI Keppel: There to Care”. “A bit cheesy,” grins Styles, “but we like that here.”

The newest of Wetherby’s buildings, Keppel was built two years ago to provide a discrete facility for vulnerable older boys (aged 15-18) whose needs could not be met on traditional YOI wings. Boys who, for a variety of reasons, needed extra support and protection to stop them slowly imploding. Boys like Liam McManus.

The Youth Justice Board estimates that between 200 and 300 boys in the secure estate could fall into this “service gap”. Keppel can now provide a refuge for 48 of them. Terry Wilson, head of Keppel, says the unit offers intensive staff support, delivered by a specially chosen and trained workforce. “There are more staff than boys,” adds Styles, “so they can have a greater influence than the boys do on each other.”

Keppel looks and feels like a secure children’s home, with soft lighting and walls full of artwork. A garden and a fishing lake are used for educational and recreational purposes, while cells have en-suite bathrooms, giving boys daily access to showers. A basic right perhaps, but one only half of young offenders have, according to a 2008 Prisons Inspectorate and YJB survey.

Some boys boast about the in-cell televisions, but bravado doesn’t hide their vulnerability. Many entered the unit after attempting suicide. “Often they’re in a bad way when they come in,” says Wilson, “self-harming or refusing to leave their room.” But staff notice changes quickly “because their needs are being met”, claims one of Keppel’s child and adolescent mental health (Camhs) workers.

The non-judgemental approach from staff is important in Keppel because its residents include boys who have committed some of Wetherby’s more serious crimes, such as sex offences. “These boys are often referred as they’ll be targets for bullying,” adds Wilson.

Victim of its own success

An inspection in April noted that there was little in the way of bullying and called the unit “an impressive facility”. But it also found Keppel was a “victim of its own success”. The only unit of its kind in the secure estate, it has become a national resource. Despite being designed to cater for Wetherby’s catchment area, Keppel now houses boys from all over the country, which can make visits from family or social workers difficult.

John Drew, chief executive of the YJB, told Community Care the board would like to see more specialist units built “when resources become available”. A bed at Keppel costs about £90,000 a year.

But lessons from Keppel are spreading across the rest of the prison. About 100 officers across Wetherby, funded by Leeds PCT, are now trained to work with boys with mental health problems, with the next batch training in April. “Anything bad here happens due to stress and anxiety,” says Styles. Leeds Camhs team has also been commissioned to research the elements of prison life which heighten anxiety, so staff can prevent tension arising, where possible.

“Prison is no place for a child,” says one officer, “but we try to give young people a real chance to succeed. Local authorities must ensure this support continues in the community, as too often it crumbles.”


(All photos, credit Justin Slee)

Sentenced to 10 months in a YOI for assault, Jason* struggled to adjust to life inside. He began self-harming and refused to join in with activities. An intelligent boy, who lacked confidence, he was in danger of joining prison gangs “for protection”.

In an effort to calm his frayed nerves, help him engage with the regime and remove him from negative influences, Jason was moved to the Keppel Unit. This made all the difference, he says.

“It’s quieter and more relaxed here. I was so tightly wound, but I started to unwind. Staff are always available for a chat and they seem to care. The other lads are also less angry so you can relax and do your time. I even got something out of it, which I never thought I would. I thought I’d die in prison.”

Now 18, he wants to be a personal trainer or a nutritionist. “I’ve learned to control my anger and the only place I’m gonna use it is in the boxing ring. I’d like to start my own boxing academy one day.”

* Not his real name

The ‘Kes’ principle

In the classic Ken Loach film, Kes, a troubled boy finds solace by looking after a kestrel. Wetherby YOI is now an RSPCA rescue unit, where abused and neglected animals are sent to recuperate, bringing Kes to life. Boys from the prison are encouraged to visit and care for them, which Styles fully endorses: “Many of our boys have problems with communication and empathy. Caring for an animal offers a safe way of giving and receiving love, and learning responsibility, without having to talk.”

Officer Paul Hemmings first brought his own animals into Wetherby four years ago, suspecting their presence could be therapeutic. Initial reactions from the boys were so positive that the prison management decided to further investigate the power of animal therapy.

The prison’s animals now include ferrets, two dogs, several owls from the Harry Potter films and three sets of racing pigeons donated by the Queen. James, 17, is holding a bird which had “no feathers” when it came in, but is now “happy after some TLC”. He looks forward to his imminent release. “Being in here has helped me sort my life out, but I won’t be back. I’d like to work for the RSPCA.” The irony is not lost on Hemmings. “It’s the wild taming the wild,” he smiles.

Of the Keppel unit’s new fishing lake, Styles says: “We care for children who weren’t given the building blocks they needed to live happy, crime-free lives. If we can give them positive, affordable hobbies which reduce their likelihood of reoffending, we will.”

Education support

Helen Abbott, an education support officer, knows how important good relationships are when educating vulnerable young people. In fact, a survey completed by the boys in Keppel about their experiences of school cited poor relationships with teachers as their main reason for failure.

An inspection in July 2009 praised “positive staff interactions” at Keppel and found boys were “well-supported” by residential support officers, who share mealtimes with them, act as mentors, and take responsibility for their welfare.

Abbott is a classic example. She teaches academic subjects and, just as importantly she says, social skills. “I can teach them where to put a full stop, but I can also teach them to wait their turn to speak, not swear and have respect for me and for others in the class,” she says.

In a class observed by Community Care, four boys – the maximum number in any Keppel class – actively participated in the lesson and in group discussions.

Abbott was in control and able to rein in short attention spans. But there was also a lot of laughter. The boys said Abbott’s lessons were “pretty all right actually.” After the lesson boys play board games, read magazines or do crossword puzzles. “This incentivises them to engage throughout the lesson,” says Abbott. “Then they can relax after concentrating, which is very hard for some of them.”

Education is valued across Wetherby, says Abbott, and she notices “massive improvements” in learning and behaviour when boys in Keppel are schooled in small, inclusive groups within the unit.

The critical view

Dame Anne Owers, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, April 2009 post-opening inspection: “The Keppel Unit is among the most impressive custodial facilities to have opened in recent years. In a very short time, a committed group of staff have established a safe, supportive and purposeful unit in which the risks and needs posed by some very damaged and complex young people are effectively addressed.”

Penelope Gibbs, director of strategy, Prison Reform Trust: “I question whether all the boys in Keppel absolutely need to be in prison. But if so, Keppel is as good as it gets. Staff are dedicated and really trying to engage with young people.”

Andrew Neilson, assistant director of the Howard League for Penal Reform: “While the Keppel unit may offer some improvement on the impoverished regimes on offer elsewhere, in these child prisons the YJB is taking a step in the wrong direction. Children have the best chance at turning their lives around when they are looked after in small units within their community – in secure children’s homes. Unfortunately some of these are being closed.”

Tim Bateman, senior policy adviser, Nacro “The current use of custody is still too high, but you can’t argue with improved regimes in YOIs. It’s just a shame that units like Keppel are required, and that all YOIs don’t look like this.”

What do young people think?

Ashley, 17, Keppel: “The officers are all right. They don’t stitch you up. But they don’t let you get away with all sorts either. I guess that’s good.”

Tom, 17, Keppel: “I’ve been in four other YOIs. This has the best showers! And people actually listen to you.”

Brian, 15, Keppel: “I’ve sort of adopted Dusty, the prison dog. Knowing Dusty has changed my life.”

James, 17, Wetherby main site: “My mother isn’t proud of me being in prison but she’s proud of what I’ve achieved here. I used to be a little s***, but there’s a lot to help us change and grow up here.”

Rob, 16, Wetherby main site: “I’ve done GCSEs, Duke of Edinburgh, offending behaviour courses, army cadets… but will I be able to do this when I get out?”

Adam, 16, Wetherby main site: “We can do drama, dance, art and music here. I didn’t think people like me could do things like that, but it’s helped me access feelings which were hard to express before.”

This article is published in the 10 December 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline An institution that no longer offends

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