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More pastoral idyll than huge prison complex

By Rebecca Black at Hydebank Wood College

Published 28/09/2016

Marie-Therese McGivern and Sue McAllister
Marie-Therese McGivern and Sue McAllister
Rebecca Black outside gates of Hydebank yesterday

'I love it up here, it doesn't feel like I am in prison," were the words of one female prisoner as she tended her tomato plants high above the grounds of Hydebank on the outskirts of south Belfast.

More pastoral idyll than prison, enormous pumpkins and ripe tomatoes blossom in the horticulture section, which is a steep walk up from the old jail cells, their tiny enclosed exercise yards a far cry from the new 'freeflow' system inmates currently enjoy.

There are high fences around the enclosure, but mature trees from the wider estate form the backdrop, with the sprawl of the Hydebank complex visible down below.

Goats roam the green areas, performing the role, I was told, of cutting the grass. Other animals within the prison include hens and even dogs, which are used as a form of emotional therapy for inmates to pet.

It is all part of a larger effort to get the prisoners off the landings.

Yesterday afternoon it was the turn of the women to do some gardening. Earlier in the morning, it had been the turn of the young men.

One of the women proudly told me how she had almost finished a horticulture qualification.

Meanwhile the tutor revealed the garden show-worthy pumpkins were specially grown for Halloween and have already been claimed by the canteen when they fully ripen.

The atmosphere and feel of Hydebank is certainly more college campus than the home of some of the most notorious convicted criminals in Northern Ireland.

A Belfast Met sign at the turnstile where prisoners enter refers to the start of a journey.

Inmates pass us as we walk through the corridors and the central courtyard area where they mingle and watch the world go by as they enjoy a cigarette.

Prison officers eat in a cafe that is run by inmates and are encouraged to refer to them as students.

Belfast Met principal Marie-Therese McGivern spoke admiringly about a young man appearing "ship-shape" and confident as he took her coffee order during the visit.

Art created by prisoners adorns the walls throughout the complex and ranges from a troubled looking depiction of a woman sitting against a wall pulling her knees to herself, to a young child running and a pair of children's trainers in stunning detail.

Art has been one of the most popular education courses since Hydebank's transformation into a secure college.

Just as popular has been the catering courses where the inmates/students learn cooking skills from basic to more advanced.

While catering courses were taught at the prison before, the facilities have been improved and 10 knives have been introduced, which are counted before and at the end of every class.

In the main classroom yesterday afternoon, there was a tray of seasoned chicken which had been prepared in one of the classes and which tasted delicious, and perhaps suggested a clue to the popularity of the catering courses.

A group of young men were intently learning how to cut onions, a scene familiar in any school but for the security system where only one door was unlocked at any time to allow the teacher to be able to watch the doorway while teaching.

In another room a teacher was working one-to-one with an inmate at a table with books, and a library appeared well stocked with books.

The full range of courses include essential skills, bricklaying, industrial cleaning, hairdressing, beauty, barbering, employability and using computers.

Personal training and IT are areas they hope to expand on in the future.

Another interesting touch at Hydebank College is the shop, where members of the public can call to buy a range of produce from vegetables grown by inmates to jams and crafts including flower vases and candle holders.

A massive bright banner reading "Hydebank College" hangs at the entrance beside a huge more traditional heavy steel door through which vehicles gain entrance, which seemed like an effective juxtaposition of the aspiration alongside the necessary reality of housing hundreds of convicted criminals.

Belfast Telegraph

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