When mummy or daddy goes to jail

Half the 1,808 women in prison in England and Wales are mothers, 28 per cent of whom have children under five years old. Of the 47,034 male prisoners, 32 per cent are fathers with dependent children. How does a child cope when a parent is in priso n? Interviews by Beverly Kemp
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Dad didn't Danny is 10 and lives with his mother and five-year-old brother. His father is serving a five-year sentence for rape in HMP Wandsworth.

The police came and took Dad away in the early hours of the morning. They banged on the door, woke Dad up, pulled his arms behind his back, handcuffed him and stuck him in the back of their van. Next morning Mum said: "Dad's gone away for a while," and burst out crying. Then I cried too.

I kept thinking: "Where has he gone? Was it me that caused him to leave or was it Mum?" At first I thought Mum might have had an argument with him. Dad went to prison for three months when I was seven and I thought then that he'd gone away because he hated me or I'd done something to make him run away from us.

Dad had six months on remand before his trial and he's been in prison for about a month now. He was accused of raping a lady. If I think about it too much I feel upset and angry. Mum and I know he didn't do it. He's just not that sort of person.

It was hard for us that first week. Every time Mum talked about it she burst into tears. Once she was on the phone to my Nan and I could hear her crying so I had to take the phone away and tell my Nan that everything was OK then calm Mum down. AfterwardsI went up to my room, turned my music on really loud and started crying myself.

Quite a few of my mates at school know where my Dad is. Mum didn't want anyone to know at first so I used to make things up. Sometimes I used to tell people he was working up north for a really famous company. But when we moved I told my new friends the truth. They didn't say much but they had surprised expressions on their faces, as if to say, "If you're Dad's there, how do we know you're not going to drag us into this kind of stuff?"

I've got into a few fights about it at school. Someone said: "You're just like your Dad." Another boy called me a jailbird so I punched him in the face. My year co-ordinator at school knows my Dad's in prison. I had to tell him because I've been worryinga lot about my Mum lately and I needed someone to talk to. I feel very protective towards my Mum. If anyone ever tried to hurt her, I'd chase them with anything I could find.

It's hard visiting Dad at this prison because they lip-read so you have to be careful what you say. They are so strict I feel uncomfortable there. We sit with loads of other inmates and visitors in the visiting room and we're not allowed to touch him at all until we're just about to leave. He kisses Mum but him and I just shake hands. I don't say much apart from "Hello" and "How are you?" Sometimes I'm shy around people I don't see very often.

Although I look forward to seeing Dad, all the waiting around can be a real pain. You go up all these stairs, wait for ages in the visitors' centre, wait for ages to get through the metal detector, then there's another long wait while they call him. On the way out you have to go through it all over again.

We used to do all sort of things as a family like going to theme parks but now Dad is away we don't do that any more. I miss it all a lot. He used to play football with me and some nights we'd stay up late playing computer games.

I've grown up a lot since Dad went to prison. Looking after my Mum has made me more responsible. She's got a lot to do what with looking after my little brother, so I try to help her as much as possible. I tidy up, go down the shops and make lots of drinks. I'm the best coffee maker in the world now.''do it, he's not that kind of person The friends I had just disappeared Jo is 17 and lives in a hostel for teenage girls. Her mother is serving a five-year sentence for a drugs offence in HMP Cookham Wood.

My Dad's in prison as well as my Mum, so I was brought up by my grandmother in Jamaica. Mum and I had never really spent much time together and we were just starting to get to know each other when she went into prison last Christmas. We don't really talkabout her offence; she hasn't told me much about it. I felt terrified when she went away. For two months I was so lonely I wanted to kill myself.

Before I moved into the hostel there were days on end where I would have no money and nothing to eat. A social worker found me wandering around and got me a bed in here. There are seven other girls, but most of the time I feel alone.

It's over a month since I saw my mother. I can't afford the train fare to visit her and as I don't know my way around London, it's scary to think of having to get on a train and go into the country. Mum phones me whenever she has a phonecard, but we don'

t talk for very long.

Other people don't want to know you when your mother is in jail. The friends that I had before have just disappeared. It's not that people don't want to help: they feel embarrassed and have no idea what to do or say. Finding Cast [a support organisation for prisoners and their children] was a lifeline. I go to the centre every day to study English and computing and they give you a free hot lunch. The women who run it are really nice and friendly and they'll listen for hours if you need to talk. It's good to feel that someone cares about me. I know Mum worries about me a lot but there's nothing she can do from where she is now. I think about her every night. She's a wonderful cook and I dream about her making a lovely meal for me.''

All names have been changed I miss having her there to kiss me goodnight Meg is 15 and lives with her father and younger sister. Her mother is serving a 15-month sentence for fraud and deception in HMP New Hall.

Dad's had to learn to do things around the house because Mum always did everything for us. We've all had to pull together really. Dad had to work out how to use the washing machine and he does all the ironing. My sister and I help him with the shopping. His cooking's OK but not as good as Mum's - he does lots of chops and pies.

Mum's in prison because she stole some money from where she used to work when we were really struggling. I don't feel angry at her for taking the money because I think she only did it because she wanted us to have nice things. But I feel angry that she couldn't tell us what was going on at the time. We only found out the night before she was due to go to court. She came into our bedroom and told my sister and I that she loved us very much but that she might have to go to prison. I couldn't sleep that night because I felt really frightened.

Mum never came home from court. My sister and I had the day off school and Dad took us to see Mum that night because we had to take some clothes in. She's allowed five skirts or trousers, some leggings, tops and underwear. I kept telling Mum how much I'dmiss her and she hugged us and promised she'd keep out of trouble in prison so as not to add more time to her sentence.

I didn't cope very well at first. One of my friends was telling me how much she hated her mum because they'd had a row. The more I listened the more I kept thinking: "At least your mum's at home." Then I broke down. Night-times were difficult, too. Mum always came into my bedroom to give me a kiss and a cuddle and I miss that more than anything. Dad does it now but it's not the same.

There was no one I could really talk to properly. At first I was scared to tell my friends in case they didn't like me any more. I didn't want them to think badly of my Mum either, so I said she'd gone away to look after my Nan. But it got too complicated to keep lying. Most of my friends know now and they took it better than I thought they would. All my teachers know too because the education department told my headmaster. They understand that sometimes I have to go and see my Mum during school days and they let me do the work I have missed in my own time.

No one at school has ever said anything really nasty but sometimes things slip out. It sounds silly but when people say how nice our Mum is, it upsets us all the more. My sister bottles it all up. Sometimes we'll talk about how we're feeling and althoughwe don't always get on, we try to help each other.

Every time we visit Mum she looks much better. She's been on a diet and you can tell how much weight she's lost. Sometimes I have so much to say that I forget something important or I can't get all the things I want to say in during the time we're allowed. We take food in to cheer her up. In summer we bought salads; now we take soup and cornish pasties so that Mum gets a nice hot meal.

When Mum comes home my sister and I are going to help her redecorate the house and Mum's promised to help me revise for my exams. She's always helped me with my homework. There was a time when I used to just copy down what Mum had written, but now I've realised I can do it by myself and still get good grades. I'm trying extra hard at school now because I want Mum to be proud of me when she comes home.

Dad's changed too since all this happened. Before he never used to talk to us very much, he just shouted. Now he's learned to get on with us, and Mum and him are much happier. We used to go shopping and he'd walk way ahead of the rest of us. Now Mum and him hold hands at visiting time. I think he appreciates her much more.''

Women in Prison 071-226 5879.

Prisoners' Wives and Families Society 071-278 3981.

Cast (support and rehabilitation for women prisoners, their children, ex-prisoners and former addicts) 071-383 5228.