DAVID Ford was waiting at his local station in Sussex for the train to work when he decided to return home. His eight-year-old son, Christopher, was going through a phase of violent tantrums and his partner, Julie, was finding it almost impossible to cope with him.

Nothing so wrong with taking a day off work for a family crisis - except that David was a prisoner at Ford Open Prison, serving a life sentence for manslaughter. He was allowed to leave the jail each day to work as a gardener in a local nursing home, but he should not have even telephoned his partner that morning, let alone gone to join her and their son. Yet he did so - and didn't return to the prison for 72 days.

For those stolen weeks he is likely to pay a heavy price. David was due for release in May this year. He has been told his decision to abscond - for the third time in four years - could mean extra years behind bars. Yet he says his escape was prompted by a feeling of complete hopelessness at the inordinate number of years he has already spent in jail for a crime he committed as a child.

David Ford was 15 when he killed a young friend during a schoolboy fight, as they tumbled into a water-logged ditch on farmland. The boy died of asphyxiation by immersion in mud. 'I still remember the horror of it like it was yesterday . . . I have to live with the knowledge that I took a life for the rest of my life. But I never intended it. I am not a violent person. It was a tragic mistake. He was my friend.'

That was 28 years ago. David was sentenced to life imprisonment during a 15-minute hearing before a judge at Exeter Assizes, after his lawyers persuaded him to plead guilty to manslaughter. The sentence was a complete shock: he had been told that in the circumstances he would be treated leniently. Instead of which he spent the next 11 years in no fewer than 18 jails.

'I grew up in prison but it was impossible to mature in an environment like that,' he says. Consequently, when he was initially released on licence in 1977 at the age of 27, he had no experience of adult life outside.

'I knew nothing about the world, about relationships and about responsibilities. I cringe to think how nave I was. I just went mad, on drink, on sex. All I knew was that I had my freedom and I didn't know what to do with it.' He developed a drink problem and was soon back in prison, his licence revoked for a series of petty drink-related offences.

It was when he was next released, a few months later, while working at an engineering factory, that he met and fell in love with Julie. In 1983 she became pregnant. 'I was there at the birth. It was magical. Christopher's birth was my salvation. It gave me purpose and direction. He was nothing to do with prison, with the Home Office, with the past. He was my future.'

Christopher was the reason David sought help for his alchohol dependency and why, when he felt he no longer needed the medication prescribed for his problem, he informed his probation officer that he had given it up. But the medication was a condition of his licence from jail, and when the authorities were informed, the Home Secretary again revoked his licence on the grounds that he had become an unacceptable risk to the public and his family - a suggestion strongly refuted by Julie.

'I didn't realise at the time that my honesty would result in another long term in prison. I was trying to do the right thing,' he says. 'And I was so determined to do the right thing because for the first time I had a purpose in my life. Christopher was 10 months old when I kissed him goodbye - not for a crime but for actually being honest. ' Since then there have just been prison visits, one home leave - and his stolen days on the run.

'When I put my son to bed the night I absconded, I knew I was acting for the right reasons,' he says. 'My family and I had been separated for far too long. I'm not a monster. As I stood on that station platform waiting for the train to arrive I knew my place was with them. So I got on the train to Portsmouth and within an hour I was at home, comforting my wife.'

David had every intention of returning to jail. 'I was going to be free in a matter of months: it would have been suicidal to do anything else. But I became overwhelmed with fear that my release would be withdrawn. I believed I'd be punished, and severely. My wife begged me to go back, but I couldn't. I couldn't bear the prospect of another four or five years' imprisonment.'

David stayed with Julie and Christopher in their council maisonette for four days. 'It was a time of such mixed emotions - I was so pleased to be with my family, but so scared that the police would come knocking. But nobody came looking for me. No-one seemed at all concerned.

'Eventually I felt I had to leave. If I wasn't going back, I had to find work and support myself. I left home and went by train to Ramsgate, where sympathetic friends had given me the use of an unfurnished flat.

'Every day I went out to look for work. I would end up walking mile after mile along the coastline or sitting on the beach staring out to sea . . . just thinking about the past and present. I'd become a man from nowhere. I had to invent a background; to make it up. I felt hunted: every time I heard a car slow down, I thought it was the police.'

David's limited funds were drying up. 'I had a roof of sorts over my head but little or no food in my stomach, and my health was beginning to deteriorate. I was suffering from a very bad chest infection'. Other friends offered him and his family a refuge in the country.

'I met my wife and son at King's Cross Station and we travelled together on what was our first ever holiday. We stayed in Herefordshire for two weeks. It was one of the happiest times of my life: I'd never spent so much time with my son, nor he with me. We went out almost every day together. I taught him to fish. I'll never forget the look of triumph on his face as he landed his first catch. For the first time in my adult life I completely forgot about prison. It felt so good to be among friends again. Even shopping - ordinary things that people take for granted - was a treat for us.'

When they had to part, it was heartbreaking. 'I moved to London in the hope of finding work and stayed with a man I had met in prison. But I had to move on a week later because he was still heavily into criminal activities and I didn't want to get involved. I decided to go away to Newcastle, which I'd known briefly as a child.

'But I felt like someone walking around with a ball and chain. I contacted my solicitor and he advised me to surrender so that my original sentence and continued imprisonment could be tested in the appeal courts. I wasn't convinced. So much of my life has been wasted in prison. The justice system has taught me only fear and punishment. It gets harder and longer with every mistake that I make.

'But I had other people to think about. I telephoned my wife and arranged to meet her to talk over what my solicitor had said. We had one last weekend together, taking long walks and having long conversations.'

On 19 October David walked into a police station and gave himself up. He has not seen Julie or his son since - the journey from her home in Gosport to the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, where he is now detained, is to too expensive and too difficult for someone without a car.

In the visiting room at Elmley jail he is bitter and cynical. 'I feel I can't keep paying for a tragic stupid mistake when I was a kid. I'm still awaiting the wrath of the Home Office.'

There are now two chinks of light. Under new laws governing those serving discretionary life sentences, his continued detention will now be reviewed by an independent tribunal, which he hopes will order his release.

David's lawyers also believe they have enough evidence - never heard at the time of his trial - to launch a successful appeal against his life sentence. But that scares him too. 'I almost can't bear to think of the chance of success. If we win the appeal, I won't be subject to a licence for life. I'll be free for first time - really free, and that frightens me. I'm not sure I know how to handle that any more.'

A 'First Tuesday' documentary about David Ford, Prisoner on the Run, will be shown on ITV on 5 January, at 10.40pm

(Photograph omitted)