Lagan Valley MLA Trevor Lunn has praised the management and staff at Hydebank Wood College.
Mr Lunn was speaking after a recent visit to the college, which he described as “an eye opening experience” for himself and local Alliance Councillor Aaron McIntyre, who accompanied him.
“Any preconceptions we may have had about the regime, atmosphere or methodology involved in keeping young males and women in custody were challenged by what we saw,” Mr Lunn said.
“The guiding principles employed are that the deprivation of liberty is the punishment imposed by the courts, but the aim of the college is to improve the prospects of those in their care, to put them on a pathway to education, to give them improved self esteem and to do what is possible to ensure that they do not reoffend.”
He continued: “In 2013, Hydebank was the subject of a particularly critical report from the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI).
“In the four years since that report, many changes have been made and initiatives taken, some quite innovative, but always with a view to achieving positive outcomes. The management and staff at Hydebank are to be congratulated on their ability to identify and implement these initiatives.
“One small change means the inmates and staff are on first name terms, resulting in increased levels of respect. The transformation to a secure college has created a demand for education and enabled many prisoners to learn new skills to help them make a positive contribution when they return to the community.
“There is an increased level of freedom of movement, which reduces tensions and staffing pressures. Some of the female inmates even operate their own kitchen, including the ordering of food supplies. There are extensive horticultural and gardening facilities, which not only provide educational and recreational opportunities, but supplies of fresh eggs and vegetables.
“A group of young men and women recently ran in the Belfast Marathon. There is a men’s choir and a ladies’ choir, who have both performed at outside events. Acknowledging the benefits of contact with animals, Hydebank now has goats, chickens and a couple of dogs. These are just a sample of the many changes and projects which have been introduced, there are many more.”
Mr Lunn concluded: “All of this may sound to some that Hydebank has ‘gone soft’, that offenders are being mollycoddled, but the changes of approach are bearing fruit. Young men and women are leaving with a different attitude to life, with a more positive attitude and self esteem, with the beginnings of educational achievement and job prospects. The reoffending rate has reduced to the low 60s in percentage terms (from the high 70s four years ago), quantifiable proof of success.
“Having said all that, Hydebank is still a prison and the regime is firm but fair. There is zero tolerance of drugs and misbehaviour is dealt with, but the Governors and Officers deserve much credit for the improvements made. I hope that funding will be available for the infrastructural improvements currently necessary and as new ideas come forward that the Prison Service and the Department of Justice will look at them favourably. The limited funding over the last four years has brought about real results and I look forward to the next CJINI report, which I am sure will confirm this.”