Cat fights, suicide attempts, lesbian affairs, bingo and karaoke nights and 72-inch plasma TVs — this is life behind bars in Hydebank women’s jail.
County Down woman Nancy Orr spent six weeks in the south Belfast prison for women and young offenders after being convicted of disorderly behaviour.
Soon she found herself rubbing shoulders with infamous lady
killers Hazel Stewart, Jacqueline Crymble, Julie McGinley, Lindsey White and Karen Walsh.
But Nancy told Sunday Life that when you’re banged up in Hydebank, living with killers is the least of your worries.
“I’m still not right after it,” she said.
“It’s completely draining.
“Hydebank is a very dark place, even in the summer time, so once you’re out and back into the light it takes a while to adjust.”
Nancy said there’s simply not enough help for prisoners with mental health problems, reliving the terrible night one of her cellmates tried to kill herself.
“Suicide is a big problem — there will be more, I know it,” she said.
“I watched a woman I was sharing a cell with pouring boiling water over her feet.
“She broke a cup and used the pieces to stab herself in the neck, it was like something out of a horror film, I still can’t get it out of my head.
“To see something like that is very damaging, but that woman shouldn’t be in prison, she needs help. After she was patched up you would just see her in a corner rocking back and forth.
“It wasn’t right.”
Nancy said she became an “agony aunt” in Hydebank because prison staff weren’t interested in listening to inmates’ problems.
“You spend your whole time taking on other peoples’ issues.
“But you’re better keeping yourself to yourself, you can’t trust anyone because you’re so isolated.
“The conditions are so cramped, there were four of us in a cell and you get paranoid.
“Most of the looking out for the prisoners is done by other prisoners.
“At the end of the day staff have the bunch of keys and they can lock you up.
“I feel sorry for what the staff have to deal with sometimes — a lot of the older ones have left now.
“You have to ask male screws for female hygiene products — it’s just humiliating.
“When you’re feeling low you don’t need it.”
Nancy said prison officers often have to break up vicious physical fights between the women.
“People fight like cats out in the yard all the time.
“On a day to day basis there are real boxing matches that go on — over anything and everything.
“It’s a constant bullying ring,” she said.
She also has her concerns about hygiene in Hydebank, especially in the jail’s hospital.
“The hospital really is filthy — it’s grubby, there’s cobwebs and graffiti everywhere and I even saw mice.
“It completely shocked me.”
Bizarrely, Nancy said three republican prisoners live together in the hospital wing, refusing to mix because they don’t see themselves as criminals.
They include north Belfast woman Christine Connor, who has been in jail since last year on remand charged with trying to kill two PSNI officers with a pipe bomb in the Ballysillan area last May.
Last June, the Republican Network for Unity said Connor had
been denied medical treatment for a kidney infection because she refused to be strip searched.
Republican bloggers later confirmed that Christine was living separately from other prisoners because she didn’t want to mix with ODCs (Ordinary Decent Criminals).
“I actually feel sorry for the republicans because it’s stinking where they are, but they have a massive 72 inch TV so it’s not all bad,” Nancy said.
“They won’t eat with everyone else so they buy their food from the tuck shop and order dried fruit and stuff, they make their own meals.”
Proving that there’s no honour amongst thieves, Nancy said that several former prisoners have been robbed after being released.
“People they were sharing with know they have maybe £100 or £200 in their accounts, so they’re tipping people on the outside off and they’re being robbed as soon as they get off a bus in Belfast.
“Houses have been robbed too because addresses on letters have been seen — you couldn’t watch them.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom in Hydebank jail — bingo and karaoke nights are run to give the female prisoners light relief.
“I started bingo just for a bit of a laugh after we got stuff from the tuck shop on a Thursday. Everyone would put something in so the prize would be maybe a packet of polo mints or chocolate.
“Karaoke we did out in the yard on a Sunday — anything to break the tension.”
She said that a few women in Hydebank were happy to be in jail because they had found love behind bars.
“There are quite a few lesbian relationships,” Nancy said.
“They’re very open, they walk about holding hands and buy each other boxes of chocolates from the tuck shop as wee presents. It’s just awkward when their husbands come to visit them.
“Hydebank is a different world, I don’t ever want to go back.”