Below is the fourth in a new series of blog posts created by those caring for children with a parent in prison that we have supported. The series aims to shine a light on the harms experienced by children and families when a parent goes to prison, and highlight the benefits that providing good support can bring.
The Wall That Divides Us.
The title of my blog may seem like an obvious choice, but as you will read, I’m not just referring to the physical prison wall dividing me and my children from my husband, their father, but also the metaphorical wall that divides society, prisoners and their families and the far-reaching consequences that ensue.
December 20th, 2019, the day that changed our lives forever. After an agonising year of not knowing, having a cloud hanging over our family whilst still trying to cling on to hope, my husband’s court date was finally upon us. Five short days before Christmas. A couple of weeks before this we had begun preparing the children for the worst, we have three boys who at the time were 17, 9 and 3. We had been open and honest with our teenage son about the possibility of his dad going to prison, there’s not much you can hide from them at that age. We had also explained in more child friendly terms to our 9-year-old about the situation we were facing, and that Daddy may not be here for Christmas, understandably he was very upset but still clung on to hope as children do. The hardest job was trying to prepare our 3-year-old, we couldn’t bring ourselves to tell him much only that daddy may have to go and work away before Christmas, he kept saying, “I don’t want daddy to go, can’t he go after Santa has been?” We tried to pacify the children a little by having a ‘early Christmas’ we allowed them to open a couple of presents the day before court in the morning, kindly left by Santa’s elf on the shelf, we told them, and we had organised a family Christmas meal out on the evening, it was a bittersweet day.
The morning of court arrived, we decided to still send the children to school, it was their last day before they broke up for Christmas, we hoped going to school would take their mind off things and their teachers were also prepared to support them if the day became too much for them.
We made our way to court, I was anxious and on edge, I felt sick and out of control, it might as well have been me in the dock that day because whatever the Judge was to decide was potentially going to be a punishment on us all, my family’s life was in his hands. We had been prepared by the barrister for a potential three-and-a-half-year sentence, maximum. Although I knew it was a real possibility, part of me still hoped the judge may be lenient, my husband was a hardworking man, he had never committed an offence before, he was extremely remorseful and played a minor part in the crime and Christmas was upon us. I wasn’t excusing my husband’s crime, and neither was he but I was hoping for a miracle. We waited all day to be called in, it was starting to become clearer that he wasn’t going to be coming home, I’d been in a similar situation before with a family member, the ones that went in last were the ones not going home.
The Judge handed down a 4-year sentence and in that moment life as I knew it slipped away, I quickly said goodbye through the glass screen of the dock as they led my husband away in handcuffs. I left the court room in tears with my head spinning, I noticed the barristers leave the court room hastily, I tried to hurry to catch them, but they disappeared down a flight of stairs. I waited stunned in the reception area for a minute thinking to myself they will come to me in a minute and make sense of all this and tell me what happens now, where will he be going? What do I do now? Nothing, they were gone, panic took over me, I managed to find the court Usher and asked him what happens now, would I be able to see my husband momentarily before he is taken to prison? He looked at me gone out! Before politely informing me that no I wouldn’t be able to see my husband and that he didn’t know where he would be taken but assumed that it was likely to be the local holding prison. I was in shock at this point, what had just happened? I ran from the court to outside and threw up and then broke down, the realisation had just hit me that not only did I feel completely alone in the world and scared, but I had to go home to my three beautiful boys and tell them that Daddy wouldn’t be home for Christmas, that life as we knew it was changed.
Me and the children were broken. It took every ounce of strength I had to get us through that Christmas, to hold them and nurse them as they sobbed for their Daddy, as they wished for Santa to bring him home, to forsake any toys they had hope of, in exchange for the man they loved and worshipped. I have never felt emotional pain like I did that Christmas, a big gaping hole was not only in my heart but in the atmosphere of our home. As a family we were grieving his loss from our hearts and our lives except there was nobody to tell us it was going to be ok, nobody was sorry for our loss. I felt completely helpless to protect my children from the pain they were enduring, in that moment I felt I had failed as a mother.
The anguish of that Christmas was compounded further. After the day of sentencing the weekend came, Saturday no phone call, Sunday no phone call, I was now panicking something was terribly wrong, I knew legally he was allowed one phone call, why hadn’t he rung, which prison was he at? Monday came, I phoned the solicitors, it went to answerphone with a message they were shut for Christmas until the new year, I was out of my mind with worry, it was like he had disappeared off the face of the earth. The children were in an absolute state of distress, worried sick and I was helpless to stop it. Then came the messages, have you seen the news on Facebook? Have you seen the newspaper? Sure enough the case had been reported in the local paper along with my husbands and his co-defendants picture, their names and the streets they live on. I wanted the ground to swallow me up, I couldn’t bring myself to look at it or read it and I certainly couldn’t read the comments. You see as a society we tar all prisoners/criminals with the same brush, scum, lowest of the low, reprobates and so on and as the family of a prisoner we also suffer the shame and stigmatisation for loving a person that made a mistake. I now feared for what my children may endure, the whispers in the playground, the frowns from other parents, the taunts in the street, being left off the invite list for their friends’ parties.
Christmas Eve came and I had to take matters into my own hands, I could not get through the next 24 hours not knowing where he was or if he was ok. I phoned the local holding prison again and pleaded with them to help me, I said I knew he was there, and we needed to know he was ok, I said “its Christmas Eve, please don’t let me and my kids go through Christmas day not knowing anything.” They took pity on me, after confirming his details to them they agreed to find out if he was there, but they would only be able to confirm if he gave permission. They gave me a time to ring back, I nervously waited and phoned back thinking I probably wasn’t going to get anywhere, I got through and the guard was able to confirm he was there, that he was ok, but he was under restrictions and had to have all his phone numbers security cleared first which could take up to two weeks. Relief washed over me, but this was short lived. Christmas week came and went, still no call, we just wanted to hear his voice, I worried about him not having any money for essentials, I worried what mental state he was in, anything and everything went through my mind. New Year’s Eve, my mobile phone rang, on the other end was a guard telling me he was ringing to inform me that my husband had been transferred to their prison that day and that he was ok, and he would be able to ring me as soon as his numbers had been cleared. I was relieved again but I was also angry, why couldn’t the other prison have done this, why did I have to plead with them on Christmas Eve for the sake of my children to get any kind of information, those first 11 days from his sentencing to his transfer had been absolutely harrowing for us. I managed to book a reception visit the first week of the new year, we’d still not had one single phone call or any form of contact in this time. I decided to go alone with my in-laws to this visit, as desperate as the children were to see their dad, I had to figure the place out myself first, to make sure it was not going to be a horrifying experience for them. He finally got his phone calls the day of our visit, so he was able to speak to the children which was a huge weight off their little shoulders. We started visiting the prison regularly, the family services at the prison did the best they could to make the experience as positive as they could for the kids.
As a family we were still very much in a black hole emotionally, not only were we dealing with the emotions of losing a massive part of our lives but financially we were in a black hole too. My husband was the main bread winner, I had post-natal depression and anxiety after the birth of our youngest son and had been unable to return to work up to that point, we was solely reliant on his wage and now that had gone, we had debts, debts that we could afford at the time but now I was left with a house to run single handedly, no income, debts to pay, three children to raise, feed, clothe and keep warm, on top of that I needed to support my husband financially in prison too, the average prison wage is £10 per week, the cost of items that can be purchased from the prison canteen are in line and often above what we pay on the outside, so £10 doesn’t even begin to cover it, the cost of phone calls are abhorrent, my husband puts £10 Credit on his phone every week to be able to speak to me and the children, that’s £40 a month it costs me, a one parent family on basic money to ensure my children are able to speak with their father, with all this financial pressure on top of everything. I felt like I was drowning. I remember thinking to myself at the time, things can’t get any worse, the worst has happened, we can only go up from here. How wrong was I, Covid-19 was about to rear its ugly head.
Mother’s Day, March 2020 was the last visit we had before the Covid restrictions began, we had a feeling it may be the last visit for the time being, naively thinking it would only be for a short while. The weeks and then the months passed by, Government press conferences were held with no mention of what was happening or going to happen with the Prisons and visits. I felt hopeless and helpless, the children were scared, what if daddy dies in there from Covid and we never get to see him again? I was scared, what if I got ill and had to go to hospital, who would look after my children? What if I died? both my parents were in the vunerable shielding category, support bubbles didn’t exist at this point, we were completely alone, the children didn’t even have school as a safety net as the schools had shut, they didn’t qualify for any special circumstances that allowed them to keep going to school even though having a parent in prison is recognised as an Adverse Childhood Experience. We were all alone with nothing but fear to fill the void, our only solace was the daily phone calls from my husband, he was also scared, he was locked up for 23 and half hours a day, terrified of what was happening on the outside and what was happening to me and the kids and powerless to do anything about it. I feared for his mental health, months of solitary confinement conditions would break the best of us.
Five long months passed and then finally Purple Visits (video visits) began to be rolled out, we couldn’t wait to see his face on the screen but what followed only compounded our children’s trauma further. The video calls were in their infancy, there was a lot of problems with it, in our first thirty-minute video call we managed around five minutes of conversation, the call kept cutting out, every time we spoke it would stop and say either something inappropriate had been said or an unauthorised person was on the screen, none of this was happening. Our youngest son who had just turned four at the time was so excited to see his daddy’s face, he couldn’t communicate or hold a conversation with his dad on the phone so seeing him face to face was a big deal for him, but every time he moved the slightest bit the video cut out, it was so sensitive to anything, by the end of that videocall my children were so upset, it was of no quality to them at all and did more harm than good. These problems carried on for some months.
In the August of 2020 around the same time as the videocalls were being rolled out, the prison my husband is at was one of the first to reopen visits, they had built wooden booths in the visiting hall a bit like when you go to a polling station to vote with Perspex screens and chairs either side. The visits were very restricted. One a month for one hour with a maximum of 3 visitors, 1 adult, 2 children, here come my next problem to make the heart-breaking decision of which child did I leave behind, which child would not be able to see their dad. Our 17-year-old very bravely and graciously made that decision for me, he wanted the younger ones to see their dad first, he told me he understood the situation more and although he was desperate to see his dad, he knew he would get a turn next, I was so proud of him but also upset that he had ever had to make that choice. The visits were a terrible experience, we literally just had to sit there, the children couldn’t get up, there was nothing to play with, they couldn’t have any physical contact with their Dad whatsoever, we had to keep our masks on, there was no holes in the thick Perspex screen, no speaker system, we couldn’t hear each other and we couldn’t lip read either, we could look but not touch, this was an immense barrier for the kids. Our 4-year-old became disengaged very quickly, and our 10 year old was in a state of physical distress by the end of the visit, I know questioned myself again, had I done the right thing in taking them? I decided to sit down with them when we got home and said to them if this was going to be too difficult for them that we would understand and we would wait for visiting arrangements to improve but our children all agreed that as hard as it was, they would still rather see their dad then not. They were willing to go through that hurt again to see the man they loved. They shouldn’t of ever had to make that choice, there could have been a better way.
Visits didn’t last long, we were back in lock down by the November, visits were closed once again and would remain closed until June 2021. In all that time there had not been one mention of prisons in the Government briefings, HMPPS and the Ministry of Justice had not given any rolling updates on prisons for months at a time, things were getting back to normal in the community but not in prison, the prisoner family community was losing all hope, left in a confused and helpless state for months, it wasn’t until July 2021 my children finally got to hug their father, 16 long months with no quality time or physical contact.
February 2021, I had joined Twitter in the July the previous year as that was the only way to get any update from the prison during the Covid crisis. I came across an article were a lady named Sarah Burrows who is the founder of a charity called Children Heard and Seen had been to give evidence at the Humans Rights Committee about how the Covid restrictions in prisons were breaching a child’s Human Rights, their right to a family life. It resonated with me so much, that’s how I felt that my children rights had been stripped for them, they were already traumatised from the loss of their father to Prison, have had to go through things children should never have to experience, deal with the impacts of the Pandemic and now their right to see their father had been taken from them too. I commented on the article and within a couple of hours I had a message from Children Heard and Seen asking me if I would like some support for myself and my children. I broke down in tears, tears of relief, for 14 long months I had been through this harrowing journey alone, not once in that time was any support offered to my children from anyone, nobody cared, we were left to deal with the fallout alone. I naively thought at the beginning, there would be some sort of official support for my children, I couldn’t believe there was nothing, no local agencies, no national government support, not even any tailored support packages from the school, although the school have always been supportive if needed, there is no official frame work to support children of prisoners anywhere.
Children Heard and Seen, Sarah and her team and all the lovely families and children I have come to know have been my saving grace, there were times before they came into our lives, I became dangerously close to giving up. My children have received so much love and support from them, my children have had one to one mentorship to help them process their feelings and fears, free of judgement, shame and stigma, they have supported me and giving me the tools to help my children through adversity. We have been to a residential weekend where we had the pleasure of meeting other families that are dealing with the impacts of parental imprisonment where lot’s of fun activities were put on for the children and this allowed their spirits to run free, to be children again. Through this I have also come to find myself as a person again, I have found my calling in life, I hope to be able to advocate and help these children as we have been helped. My only regret is that it took for this to happen to us to realise that we have an invisible group of children in today’s society, my goal is to help to change this narrative.
What I have learnt since being a part of Children Heard and Seen is shocking. At any one time in the UK, it is estimated that 312,000 children are affected by parental imprisonment, it is an estimate because in 2021 there is to this day not a single government agency that records how many children have a parent in prison, there is no official framework or package of support to support these children yet parental imprisonment is on the list of adverse childhood experiences, they are not recognised as children in need. Schools don’t receive any extra funding to give a tailored package of support to them, even though these children suffer bullying, shame, stigmatisation whilst dealing with immense grief for the loss of their parent from their lives. Local councils award extra funding to schools for children of parents serving in the armed forces to help schools support them through the periods of time they must be away from their serving parent and the upheaval it can cause to a child. These adversities are similar to those of children with a parent in prison, but they are not afforded the same care and I can only conclude this is because of the stigma and shame surrounding prisoner families. Society views you as guilty by association, not worthy of any help or care because your parent should have thought about that before they committed a crime. I encounter these comments on a regular basis, if only life was that clear cut. Are we saying as a society that a child’s suffering is justifiable because their parent made a mistake? Prisoner families and moreover prisoners’ children are innocent, they have done nothing wrong, as children they unconditionally love their parent and experience severe trauma when their parent goes to prison. These traumas can lead to a dissociation with law and society which then can lead on to intergenerational offending. Research has shown 1 in 3 boys with a parent in prison will go on to offend themselves.
It is time these invisible children are recognised, accounted for and supported from the beginning. Children Heard and Seen have shown in their own statistics that with help and support these children have much brighter future ahead of them, Intergenerational offending is reduced dramatically. The trauma they suffer can be reduced. Helping anyone associated with a prisoner is never going to be a vote winning issue but I implore you for a moment to put yourselves in these innocent, forgotten children’s shoes and see things from their perspective and to always remember crime does not discriminate, any of us at anytime could potentially find ourselves and our children in this situation.
We are nearing the end of our prison journey, but the impact it has had on us will remain with me forever, there can be another way to make this better for our children and I am determined in my lifetime to see this change come to fruitation, no longer will our children have to think and say #itwasntme.