Belfast Telegraph

Prison officer who teaches female inmates kitchen skills named BBC Cook of the Year

By Michelle Weir

A prison officer who teaches cooking skills to female prisoners has won a prestigious national award.

Helen Boyce, who is based at Hydebank Wood College, was named Cook of the Year at the BBC Food and Farming Awards held in Bristol.

She was nominated by the Northern Ireland Prison Service for "transforming the lives of female prisoners" at the college's canteen, which is known as 'The Cabin', where the governor, prison staff, visitors and some inmates eat.

Helen also successfully introduced an initiative that involved prisoners producing breakfast baps for sale to staff and inmates and the project attracted social enterprise funding.

Helen said: "In this environment, they all need a job. They choose the kitchen.

"They are very good at what they do. They like to see people come in and get to chat to them. It gives them a bit of normal life."

Helen went on to say that when she heard about the award nomination, she "could not believe it".

"I thought somebody was winding me up. I was shocked when I was contacted by the BBC and delighted to win this award."

She added: "First and foremost, I'm a prison officer, but I enjoy teaching prisoners new skills and working alongside the girls to provide food in The Cabin where we run a very effective catering service for all staff and prisoners."

Hydebank's senior officer in charge of catering indicated that there is a budget of £17.50 per inmate weekly to provide three meals a day.

He said: "What we are doing here is very positive and the girls have a purpose and have ownership of The Cabin.

"It used to be prison officers did not eat prisoners' food, but Helen has turned that right round."

Ronnie Armour, head of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, said: "Helen has not only delivered an excellent canteen providing nutritious food, she has also helped to transform the lives of those prisoners who have worked hand-in-hand with her here.

"I could not be more proud of Helen, of the prisoners who have worked with her, and of the staff at Hydebank who, every day, challenge those in our care and help them to change their offending behaviour."

Cookery is part of a curriculum in Hydebank that has been designed to combine vocational skills with numeracy and literacy in a bid to prepare offenders to find a job on release.

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