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"Though she be but little, she is fierce."

Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

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There were only 12 girls in the secure estate in England and Wales in April 20221. The vast majority of the youth prison population are boys, and the system is set up for them. The girls are, however, very different from the boys in their stories, their needs and their responses. Any adaptation to take this into account usually comes down to individual members of staff.

We have seen at HMYOI Wetherby, the introduction of the girls has presented the whole establishment with new challenges. As in Shakespeare's quote, their size and stature belie a strength of will and depth of feeling, which itself masks extreme vulnerability. The level of attention and connection that the young women require has stretched everyone who works with them. And  differences in how they are treated has caused resentment amongst some of the lads, and confusion for the staff.

Getting to know the girls, it became clear to us, that each of them has found themselves in extremely vulnerable positions in society. Some recognise this, whilst others wholeheartedly believe they are in control. Without doubt, their needs, their vulnerabilities and their trauma is at a level that is unimaginable for most people. These girls are among some of the most complex and vulnerable young people in the country.

Coming from backgrounds where abuse and betrayal have been common experiences, building trust and relationship takes longer, needing patience and imagination to make a connection. Their relationships are fickle and easily frayed -  they can find it difficult to get on with each other. This makes working with them together very challenging.

Since late summer 2021, a small number of girls have been housed at HMYOI Wetherby alongside the boys. Their arrival came about through the closure of another establishment, bringing with it many challenges and a need for adaptation.

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Many of them have not had the privilege of a positive, protective, and nurturing 'mother' figure and so their experience of normal life is limited. The seemingly persistent expectation that personal hygiene, cooking, cleaning - generally keeping house - comes naturally to girls is one that they can't fulfil. And yet, we have noticed a real desire for activities which a positive 'mother' figure would role model or provide in the formative years. This is despite their lack of confidence and sometimes reluctance to try new things.

Since the young women came to HMYOI Wetherby, we have adapted the In2Out Life Skills Challenge to have a much more 'maternal' and gentle approach. We have focussed less on teaching and more on working alongside and 'mothering'. New activities have been included for them, such as painting nails, braiding hair, decorating birthday cakes, cleaning their rooms and making decorations, These are as well as practical skills like how to fill in forms, practising job interviews and writing letters.

During our time with the young women, we have seen them laugh, connect, open up and lean on us in times of need. They have all, in time, learned to trust us and have given us the opportunities to prove to them that we care.

One of them sent us an email:

"I just feel alone and like I'm not even a person. I don't feel anyone cares about me here. I just keep thinking, 'there is light at the end of the tunnel! I've got this!' Thank you for working with me! You don't understand how much you change my mood and mindset when I'm with you lot!"

Fierce? Any fierceness masks a real, deep desire to be seen, heard and loved. In2Out has the opportunity to do all of these things for them every week.

1. Youth Custody Report - April 2022

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