All you need to know about HMP Hydebank Wood

HMP Hydebank Wood is a women’s prison and male Young Offenders Centre (YOC) located in South Belfast, Northern Ireland and operated by the Northern Ireland Prison Service. The YOC holds males between the ages of 18 to 24 and is adjacent to the women’s prison. The prison overall is a medium-to-low security establishment.

The women’s prison unit, Ash House, is a separate residential unit, which opened in June 2004 after huge refurbishments. It has 5 self-contained sections, including an induction floor for women who have just arrived at the prison. Some sections are for women who require less supervision and hence have more freedom in their day to day living; other sections are highly monitored and observed, for prisoners who need to be supervised at all times. There is also a mother and baby unit and a disability unit. The ground floor contains facilities such as a hairdressing classroom, a training kitchen, a multi-faith room, and a drop-in health centre.

Murray House, a smaller unit which is located outside of Hydebank Wood, was opened in 2015 for women nearing the end of their time in prison. Here, women have minimal security and are able to work out of prison in the local communities.

There are two other prisons in Northern Ireland – HMP Maghaberry, a high-security male prison in Lisburn, and HMP Magilligan, a medium security male prison in County Londonderry. HMP Hydebank Wood is the only female prison in Northern Ireland.


Ash House, the main female residential unit in Hydebank Wood, has a maximum capacity of 71 women. However, in July 2019 the number of female prisoners hit 84, its highest number in the past five years. The Northern Ireland Prison Service said that it was managing the high population by utilising other facilities on site and doubling up cell numbers where possible. Prisons are aware of fluctuations like this and so often rooms are made to accommodate extra beds when necessary. The Department of Justice claims it is committed to reducing offending among women, in order to prevent the issue of overpopulation in female prisons.


In 2013, after an unannounced inspection of the prison, Hydebank Wood received poor results and over 150 recommendations for improvement from inspectors. There were concerns for both the YOC and the women’s prison, believing them both to be deteriorating at a rapid rate. The main cause for concern in the women’s prison was the safety of prisoners, recognising that the schemes implemented did not support the prisoners’ mental rehabilitation.

Prison Service director general in 2013, Sue McAllister, said there had been huge changes implemented since the inspection, including a new management team. And these changes seem to have been effective, as Hydebank Wood prison received much better results in their latest inspection in 2016. More than 30 inspectors spent two weeks in Ash House and noticed a marked improvement compared to three years previous. Inspectors observed a positive change in ethos, teaching curriculum, vocational training, activity attendance, management, staff-prisoner relationships, and general rehabilitative support of the female prisoners.

However, one issue noted was the apparent availability of illegal substances, in particular psychotropic drugs which can create very challenging behaviours in prisoners. The inspection also highlighted the current problem of mental health among female prisoners, suggesting that many prisoners require much more support and others, in some severe cases, would be better in a psychiatric ward or hospital setting to ensure they are receiving the best treatment for their issues.

However, overall, the improvement over the three years between inspections was a huge success and a testament to the hard work of the new management team and all staff at the prison. One of the biggest improvements was that of the relationships between staff and prisoners; inspectors noticed that engagement was consistently positive and encouraging, with most staff delivering a caring approach to all young men and women in their care. This was one of the many parts considered “outstanding” by inspectors.


In 2016, Hydebank Wood hit the headlines when a female prisoner, Margaret Henderson, fell pregnant while in jail, after having sexual relations with a young prisoner held at the YOC on the same site. Henderson was jailed after being accused of murdering a pensioner and fell pregnant while she was awaiting trial. Although the male and female prisoners are allegedly separated, ex-prisoners and inside sources claimed that there was a lot of interaction between prisoners across the sites, and males from the YOC were able to spend time with women from the female prison alone and unsupervised, which would explain how this incident would have been possible. Since this case, the prison has tightened up on its supervision and more recent inspections have been much more positive concerning safety and staff supervision.

In November 2019, a boxing programme was announced to take place in Hydebank Prison, for both the young men and women behind bars. Paddy Barnes MBE, Northern Irish flyweight boxer, will be heading into prison to deliver a six-week boxing programme along with Carly McNaul and Marc McCullough, also Northern Irish boxers. The programme will revolve around non-contact boxing, working on the physical and mental wellness of prisoners. Participants will be given world-class training, with insight to the many benefits of boxing, as well as professional advice on diet, nutrition, and mental health.

Director of prisons, Austin Treacy, said the programme will not only build physical strength, but will develop prisoners’ mental attitude and self-esteem, which in turn can help reduce any mental health issues they may be facing.

Paddy Barnes, who has won two bronze medals at the Olympics and two gold medals in the Commonwealth Games, said that boxing helped keep him on the “straight and narrow”, admitting that without it, he doesn’t know where he may have ended up, and it could well have been in a YOC. He hopes that the boxing programme will help others like it has helped him.

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