Hazel Stewart: A little make-up, groomed hair and a waft of perfume
Visiting Hydebank Offenders’ centre is a far cry from the Maze or even Maghaberry, but it is still a high security institution.
Unlike the old Maze complex, the last jail I visited, there are no watchtowers and no blacked out minibuses to take you to the visiting area and disguise the layout. You can drive more or less up to the door but inside there are hi-tech precautions.
Each visitor’s fingerprint is checked twice, once in the lobby and once before entering an area where prisoners are sitting at tables waiting for us.
Everything that is brought into the prison has to pass through metal detectors and all items, even blank paper, have to be left in a locker before going to meet inmates. The big fear seems to be that drugs will be passed.
The public areas are bright, airy and modern with big, unbarred windows facing unto internal courtyards. There are also glass doors opening onto corridors along which the prisoners walk to their “rooms”, as the cells are referred to.
Neither prisoners nor staff wear uniforms and a canteen type trolley sells hot drinks and snacks, but nothing can be removed after a visit.
I visited Hazel Stewart with her husband David, a former policeman who knows the form, and her daughter Lisa who is a nurse.
Hazel herself is neatly dressed in a long black cardigan and slacks. She hasn’t neglected her appearance in jail; she is wearing light make-up, her hair is well groomed and there is a waft of perfume as she runs forward to hug her husband and daughter.
She looks considerably more relaxed and at ease than she did during her trial and belies the hard, stony faced image that comes across in pictures of her walking into court.
She chats easily and fluently in a low voice. There is no hesitation, she has precise, almost clipped tones with a slight Coleraine lisp.
When she gets on to small talk you could almost imagine we were at one of her dinner parties, until the prison officer walks past. Hazel Stewart is good company and badly misses her big, modern stone-built house outside Coleraine.
“You were in it,” she says when I mention it. “Are they keeping it tidy?” she asks, teasing her husband David. I explain that I have run my finger along the work surfaces and raised no dust. David looks relieved.
Physically she is a trimly built, animated woman, who wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Desperate Housewives. She now weighs in at nine stone; she reckons she has shed about a stone since the trial, but claims she wanted to lose that anyway. She looks thin, but not anorexic.
She finds prison food palatable enough, but a bit high fat for her taste: “they could do with a bit of the Jamie Oliver approach in here” she laughs.
She is currently working in the prison kitchens herself. Yesterday her working day was spent chopping mushrooms but she is more usually on dish washing duty. That’s OK, but she would prefer to be in the garden and has applied to work there.
“We have a nice garden at home and I enjoyed keeping it,” she says, looking crestfallen. “If I could do it, it would get me out in the fresh air anyway.”
Stewart denies reports that she was having particular difficulties in jail. Though she is clear that she wants her sentence reduced she says both staff and inmates have been “incredibly kind” and she considers the place to be well run.
Most of the other women are younger than her and, although she has made no particularly close friends so far, she gets on well with them all, and has no enemies either. “I feel lucky to have a family outside waiting for me,” she says. “Some of the other girls don’t and some people come in an out of here on a conveyor belt.”
She has to walk past blocks of young male offenders each day and at first they shouted at her. “Now the novelty seems to have worn off a bit. Some of the other girls shout back at them but I haven’t bothered responding. Usually they just shouted Hazel.”
She does find prison tedious, though, and wonders how she will stick it in the long term. The biggest problem are the long periods of lock down, when she and other inmates are confined to their rooms, due to staff shortages. Sometimes it happens when staff are diverted to deal with disturbances elsewhere in the complex.
She would like to play the piano, but can’t because staff are seldom available to escort her to Hydebank’s only available instrument, which is in the church.
Access to the gym can be restricted for the same reason. A keen cyclist and power walker before her convictions, she enjoys “spinning” on an exercise bike and has taken up body pumping with weights.
She has also applied for guitar and fitness classes to try and help fill in her days. A born again Christian and practising Baptist, she has joined is the prison fellowship, a Christian group with just four or five members.