Below is the fourth in a new series of blog posts created by adults who have lived experience of parental imprisonment. By sharing these hidden voices, we hope to show how the impacts of parental imprisonment can stay with people well into adulthood.
In 1982, my father was sentenced to ten years for armed robbery. He had previously served two years at an open prison but this was more serious. Once sentenced he was sent to HMP Long Lartin, Worcestershire. I was 11 years old at this time, my brother 14, my sister 7. On the last Sunday of the month, me, we would visit my Dad at the prison. What follows is my account of the following six and a half years that he was away.
I STILL LOATHE prison visits. The visits to Long Lartin would gift me with painful memories of how our family unit disintegrated within a few short years. On those Sundays, we would rise early, dress in our good clothes, take an hour-long drive to the prison.
Sitting by the right passenger window I would browse at the rising hills in anticipation. Gradually the tall, spoked prison lights would appear high in the distance, multiplying and emerging from beyond hillsides. We’d slow and turn right to ascend a winding lane, watching the lights growing taller and emerging from beneath them, high prison walls creeping into view. My stomach would tumble in excitement and apprehension.
HMP Long Lartin was a large sprawling institution set in the bare farmlands of Worcestershire. It was unlike any place I had ever visited before.
We would arrive early, aiming to be first on the list to secure the longest visit. For two hours our visiting order would be processed as we sat around killing time, observing all the other families, reading the prison notices, noting the signs, the posters, the officers, until eventually the door to the visiting room was unlocked and a screw arrived with the register. Finally, we would hear the familiar words bawled out:
“VISITORS FOR SPENCER!”
We would bolt upright and rush over to the desk. The screw would glance at our Visiting Order (VO), look down the register, tick the right-hand column and on the back of the VO write something like: ‘Row C. Table 6’.
“You can go in,” he would say without a smile.
We, my Mum, sister and me, would enter a large unfriendly hall of sixty or so tables with a stern looking inmate sat at each one. I would hurry ahead, scan the tables for our row number before spotting the Old Man stood facing our way. He’d greet our Mum with a kiss on the cheek, my sister a sharp cuddle, and for me a firm handshake.
As HMP Long Lartin was a maximum-security prison holding terrorists, murderers, and bank robbers, visits were strict and formal. Also, due to the influx of drugs, there had been changes introduced.
Visitors could no longer sit to the sides of inmates but opposite, so the screws had a clear view. Additionally, we could no longer bring in our own food. They had installed a canteen manned by volunteers under the watchful eye of a screw.
I would be dispatched early to secure a place at the front of the queue. There I would wait, observing the room, studying the inmates and speculating as to their crimes. Most looked quite ordinary but there were a few clues. Undoubtedly, an Irish accent meant IRA; larger burly inmates who received respectable nods would be lifers or bank robbers; those who received no such nods and avoided all eye contact were the ‘nonces’ as the Old Man called them.
He had been here for more than a year.
Initially remanded to Winston Green, once sentenced, he was transferred to Long Lartin and our monthly visits begun. We’d set off early and spend a couple of hours driving until the tall prison lights appeared over a distant hillside. A large modern edifice with high walls and a series of electric gates you’d pass through to the visiting centre. The screws were friendly enough, the place clean enough. Not what I expected a prison to be. The Old Man dressed in T-shirt, jeans and trainers with his hair cut short. He looked not like our Dad at all. He was adapting to fit in. He spoke differently, swore a bit, ‘fucking’ this and ‘fucking’ that, used prison lingo – ‘screws’, ‘lifers’, ‘nicks’, ‘grasses.’ On the early visits there would be three adults and us kids but then he’d had a few joint visits with his co-accused where the numbers were doubled.
The general feeling amongst the adults was the Old Man’s ten-year sentence had been excessive and his arrest a stitch up. People were convinced the police had been out to get him, that he’d grown too big for his boots on Gosford Street, made too many enemies. There was speculation as to who the grass had been, but it would be some time before this would be known. Throughout such discussions though, only Mum would point out that he should never have been robbing a bank in the first place, that it was wrong etc.
He would simply explain it was a mistake, a one off. He was trying to save the businesses and had been desperate. He pointed around the room; prisons were full of people who had made mistakes. He was one of many, but he would learn.
Sounded reasonable to me.
From the beginning he had been upbeat regarding prison and spun humorous tales of the prison characters he’d become acquainted with. The Russian spy Geoffrey Prime was there as were scores of IRA terrorists whom he insisted were good decent people once you got to know them. If this was to reassure us there was no reason to worry, it worked on me.
I would return with a tray of teas, crisps and chocolates, find the Old Man updating us on what had been happening with himself at the prison.
I’d take a seat, lean in, all ears, wanting to know more.
He considered himself fortunate to have got the transfer to Long Lartin as it was considered one of the best in the country for education. Enrolling on several courses in business and law, he claimed they would prove priceless. On release he was banking upon starting up new companies which he believed would make more money than before.
“There’s no need to earn lots of money,” Mum would caution. “It’s not worth taking risks for.”
“There’ll be no risk,” he corrected her. “These will be legal businesses.”
My eyes would bounce between them and sense conflict.
“Your Mum worries too much. I’ve plenty of time here to get the right idea that’ll make a fortune. Making a lot of money is easy once you’ve got the right idea which I will have.”
I would nod and smile though noticeably our Mum said little, her mind elsewhere.
At these visits, month by month they had followed the same agenda, but it had undeniably become discouraging. News from his family? As usual, very little. Ex-workers? friends? Associates? Week by week, we heard less and less. Their promises, their favours? They more often failed to materialize. Visit by visit, the circle of friends decreased. It was apparent that many of his old ‘friends’ whom he’d previously talked of in glowing terms weren’t so great after all. There were a few good souls, but more often than not it was Mum’s family who came through when the car needed fixing, or the phone was to be cut off, or a bailiff’s letter arrived.
Throughout the visit, he would talk through these problems by working down a long list of notes written in blue biro on the inside of his forearm. He would begin from the upper arm and move his way down the list and onto his palm. Somewhere midway down would be written ‘DAVID’ – increasingly in large capitals.
“What’s happening at school and why hasn’t he come?”
Mum and I would exchange glances. The answer was one and the same: truancy, fighting, and swearing. He had been suspended twice and expected to be expelled by the end of the week. The Old Man shook his head in despair at my brother who didn’t listen. At earlier visits David would have agreed to be on best behavior, obey the rules and steer clear of bad influences; the Old Man, serving ten years for armed robbery would have lectured him at length on the subject of obeying rules whilst I watched on. The irony not lost on me.
Since the Old Man had been away David’s schooling had deteriorated. At sixteen he would be expelled with no exams taken and the dole queue waiting. Seemed the worst news to me but the Old Man would sweep my concerns to one side, “Exams aren’t everything!” he’d announced. “He won’t need any. He’ll be working for me when I get out.”
I raised an eyebrow. From my understanding, he wouldn’t be out for another four or five years. In the meantime, what were we all supposed to do?
He continued down his list:” Jason’s school. What’s the latest?”
I’d found my application to senior school refused as we lived three hundred metres outside the catchment area. Thanks to the Old Man’s shortsightedness we’d been moved from school to school to school until I found myself living in Coventry (West Midlands) and being schooled three miles away in Bedworth (Warwickshire). The Old Man had gotten our local MP involved, explained our difficult family circumstances and achieved nothing. I would be starting another new school in September.
I shrugged, nodded and pretended it was fine.
Next, he turned his attention to my younger sister Kate, a sweet eight-year-old unable to accept why her Dad was in prison nor understand why he couldn’t come home after each visit. To maintain a semblance of normality he’d done all he could to assure she kept her Shetland pony which for me was a moot point. We were struggling week to week with money and she had a horse! After a brief discussion of horse shows and gymkhanas, he’d make promises for a new saddle or a new stable and she’d be happy.
Around this time, a screw would holler “TEN MINUTES!” The room would pause a few seconds, then conversations would resume, now hurried, louder and more urgent.
The Old Man would use this time to recap his lists and by the time the screws were ushering the last visitors from the room, there was barely a minute for goodbyes. Nevertheless as we came away my sister would create a scene, sobbing loudly, clinging to the Old Man first and then to the table and then to a chair until a screw arrived and she’d be dragged or carried from the room. I would remain calm, shaking hands as he would invariably close with words of, “Be good and take care of your mother.”
At the door, as per usual, I would turn and take one final look, get a brief glimpse of his normality as screws barked orders and organized inmates into lines at the far end of the room. He might see me looking and manage a nod before a screw closed the visiting room doors and he would be gone.
Until next month.
A YEAR LATER, only Mum and I were attending visits. He couldn’t hide his disappointment. I would take a place in the queue and watch the room and note how our visits now only required two chairs.
When he’d first been sentenced our visits often needed up to seven but as the months passed this had come down. Back then I had looked at inmates with one visitor and felt sorry for them. I had also noted inmates with no visitor, just an empty chair. These were the no shows which could be a public show of relationship breakdown. The inmate would sit there in silence, publicly humiliated, waiting to be returned to their cell.
Now we were down to two chairs.
My Mum would explain my brother’s and sister’s reasons which to me at least, were not up to scratch. I believed it was vital we all attended these visits and hoped that in their absence, my presence would mean more but I was wrong. He’d be distracted throughout the visit and suddenly the visits were long at some two hours and the conversation a strain. He no longer had long lists of writing up and down his arms to discuss. I’d take along some homework to fill the gaps, but he had little patience.
I would listen in silence as he and Mum trawled down the growing list of money problems and the few people who had come through and the many who had let him down. Whilst they talked, I would queue for the canteen and watch a visiting room that had become familiar and depressing. I now guessed that the full tables of visitors were likely the new inmates and those with a single visitor had been here a good while.
To the table I would return with basic drinks and a single bar of chocolate. Money was tight now, there was little to waste. Before long, to lift the spirits, he would talk about his new courses, the new qualifications and his certificates in haulage and import/export. He would explain how he could easily take a manager’s job in the sector but instead would be setting up a haulage company upon his release. One day I spoke up.
“Would it not be better just to get a job? “I suggested.
“What?” he said glaring at me.
I wanted to point out that it’s his ambitions that’s landed him in here, but I backed down from this, and offered, “Well, why do you have to own a company? Why not work for a company first?”
He bit his lip, frowned and came back at me, “Why let someone else make all the money? You can earn a lot more money if you own the company!”
I couldn’t argue with his logic and by the time I was about to, he’d changed the subject and left me flailing. The next time the conversation returned my way, it concerned school and how well I was doing. I nodded, well aware of how little he knew of our lives outside.
By the winter of ‘85, we – my Mum, sister and I – were still in the same draughty mold ridden house on a side of the city where we knew no-one, had no phone and a car that failed to drive most days. My brother had long moved out and was rarely seen. The mood had become dark and depressing. I spent most evenings watching TV or drawing at the table; the upstairs rooms were too cold to sit still in. We saw few people; old friends no longer called. Each morning I shuffled off to the new school, kept my head down, took sandwiches rather than the free school meals which might draw attention. The last thing I wanted to be was the new kid whose dad was inside.
ONE WEEKEND, MUM declared we wouldn’t be visiting. Her excuse was the car which was considered beyond repair. I was annoyed, ‘How are we supposed to get through this if no-one turns up?’ I thought to myself. ‘What is our future supposed to be if we cannot make these visits?’ I sulked. I didn’t enjoy the visits but that was not the point. I saw them as essential to us all. What possible future did we have without them?
Several months passed; the visits didn’t resume, and we soldiered on.
By the Spring my Aunt, who’d been there to break the news of the Old Man’s arrest a few years previous, visited to break some good news and bad news to my sister and me. The good news was that we were moving to a new house near old family and friends; the bad news was that Mum and Dad were divorcing.
It would be a fresh beginning.
FOR THE FOLLOWING three years I saw him rarely, wrote infrequently. Prison letters were difficult. What do you write to a father in prison? How are things going? Is all going well? Everything you could write sounded hollow, fake and worthless. Fathers’ Days, Birthdays and Christmas more so. You had to send cards and wish ‘Happy Birthday’ to a father stuck in prison or send a card to the ‘Best Father in the World’, though you rarely saw him. Most letters focused on the future and the word hopefully would be used over and over. I began to loathe my use of the word. That the Old Man had years of experience writing prison letters meant his letters seemed easy and upbeat, so optimistic and confident.
Throughout the time he was inside though, I heard rumours. Year by year as I grew older, I heard more and more, some quite unpleasant with no notion as to whether they were true or not. It was impossible to distinguish the truth from the fiction.
I naturally began to wonder whether the Dad I remembered was the good man I thought he was. If half of the things I heard were true, then how could he be?
At some point I stopped writing altogether. And then I stopped visiting.
Eventually, I wrote to him, repeating the rumours I heard. Asked whether they were true.
He replied saying that he paid no heed to gossip and neither should I. He knew the truth from fiction. Mistakes had been made, he was not perfect, but he had no regrets and had done everything he could to provide for his family. When I was older, I would understand.
It didn’t answer my questions.
Impossible to reconcile the rumours with the father I had known, it was easier to ignore it, not mention it anymore. Like most teenagers, I kept any thoughts and emotions to myself, our family business a tightly kept secret, my feelings shut.
Having moved to a new house, this was an easy thing to do. My school was now five miles away on the north side of the city. It would have made sense to move schools, but with just a few years to go, there seemed little point. Besides, at school, no -one knew where I lived, that my Old Man was inside or that my parents had divorced. As we had no phone or car, it was easy to remain anonymous and distant. And there were other advantages.
This seclusion meant I became somewhat absorbed in hobbies. Long hours of drawing, reading and pool replaced nights out playing football with mates. School became somewhere I merely had to go in the day for a few years until I was done, until my sentence was complete, and I could leave to do something I wanted to do.
Art college would be the answer. It is where I would go at aged sixteen, just at the point where I’d learned to stop waiting for the Old Man.
Then one evening, there was a knock at the door of our new house. I was sat eating some egg on toast, a tray on my lap and an episode of Blockbusters on the box. I sighed, placed my tray down and stomped around to the front door. Still chewing on some toast I opened the door and saw standing there in a loose fitting dark blue suit, the Old Man.
He was greyer than I remembered. Shorter too, or was that me.
I was by then a lanky seventeen year old, an art student with John Lennon glasses and scraggly hair. I didn’t know what to say.
“Alright Jason. Is your Mum in?”
“No… she’s out.”
He walked straight in without being asked which left me at a loss as to what to say or do. This was our new house. “Just need a glass of water,” he stated and helped himself.
“She’ll be back later,” I added, watching him gulp down a glass. “When did you get out?”
“A few hours ago.”
I watch him and sensed how he was buzzing with energy, like I remember.
“Is Kate about?”
“No, she’s at Sue’s.”
“Okay. Everyone’s alright though?”
I nodded, “Yeah. We’re all fine.”
“I’ve a driver waiting so I best get going,” he said. And with that, for the only time in my life, he patted me on the shoulder,” I’ll call back later,” he added.
“I’ll tell them you called,” I said following him to the door. “Do you know what time you’ll be back?”
“Later,” he called. And with that he was off. I watched him walk down the street to a new looking car with a driver waiting. He climbed inside, chatted with the driver, and after a minute or two, pulled away.
It had been almost seven years.
And just like that, he was back.
This account I wrote for the book ‘The Old Man and Me’ which was published by Mirror Books on March 3rd of 2022.