TRIAL: Life behind bars

HAZEL Stewart has been described as a woman who wore the latest fashion and who kept a “show house” home.

But she is now residing in Hydebank Wood Women’s prison in Belfast .

She joins only eight women in Northern Ireland who are currently in prison serving a sentence for murder.

From the day Stewart was charged with the double murders of her husband Trevor and Lesley Howell, she was granted bail.

During each of the fourteen days of her Crown Court trial in Coleraine, she was free to go home at the end of the day.

However, on Wednesday, after she was found guilty of the double murders, she was allowed a short period to say her farewells to husband David and children Andrew and Lisa before being taken to a holding cell and then onwards to Hydebank. In Hydebank she will be held in an assesment landing until she finds out how long she will have to serve.

Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, Olwen Lyner, detailed what women can expect at Hydebank.

She said that the trip from the court to prison can be one of the most traumatic journeys a prisoner ever makes.

“It’s a very stressful time. There are lots of unfamiliar sights and sounds like the clanging of prison gates and the alarms - the whole process can be quite disorientating.”

Ms Lyner said that new prisoners receive a detailed search before they are taken to a basic cell. She added that in the first few days and weeks of prison, female prisoners will have no toiletries, no money, no furnishings for their cell and may not even have clothes.

She described the prison environment as ‘volatile’ at times, with many prisoners suffering from alcohol dependency, drug abuse and self harm issues - all of which are a world away from Stewart’s comfortable middle-class life in Coleraine.

“It can be overwhelming, particularly for women who were not expecting to go to prison, but it is vital to learn about, and understand this new world they are in,” said Ms Lyner.

Ms Lyner said that whilst a prisoner’s regieme may be basic at the start, there are opportunities, as time goes on, to work in the garden, kitchens or with animals, and there will also be chances to build on education and fitness. Phone calls and letters, which will become the most important lines of communication with families at home, are recorded and opened.

The Chief Executive added that as women usually have a predominant role in providing for their children, the Northern Ireland National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders provide support for prisoners and their children to help maintain relationships.