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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 April 2006, 06:16 GMT 07:16 UK
The struggle to stay in touch
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Website

Fathers' group
Fathers are encouraged to think about their role
A "traditional" family life is out of the question when a mother or father goes to jail - making any sense of normality a struggle.

"My son has hardly seen me, I have told him I can't be his dad, but I can be his friend," says 'Paul', an inmate at HMP Chelmsford.

There are murmurs of understanding among the group of prisoners taking part in a fathers' course at the jail.

Some hope they will soon be back with their partners and children, others are pleased they still come to visit. Many know they have let their family down.

Every year an estimated 150,000 schoolchildren will experience having a parent in jail. Nearly one-third of the children will experience significant mental health problems - well above average.

Lengthy trips to see their parent in prison and life in a cash-strapped home are standard.

'Doing the best'

Some members of the prison group have not told their children about where they are, opting to pretend they are away for work reasons.

"I went through a time of imprisonment where I thought I was doing the best my by kid by not saying where I was," offers one.

7% of children will see a parent imprisoned during school years
Every year 150,000 children have a parent in prison
Two thirds of women prisoners are mothers
One in four families has a five-hour round trip for prison visits
One in five married prisoners will be separated as a result
45% of prisoners lose contact with family during sentence
Sources: Prison Reform Trust and Pops

Another says the course has helped him realise the impact it has had on his sons.

It's not his first time in prison, but he says he now knows that he wants "quality of time with my wife, quality of time with my children - money means nothing".

Encouraging the men to think about the effects of their crimes on their families is at the centre of the course - as is the need to think about their role after release.

Progress is not always easy. Some of the fathers seem distracted, others offer thoughts on "good parenting" that the course leaders patiently suggest they reconsider.

'Devastating time'

The effects of a partner being sent to jail have been experienced first-hand by Anita.

Father and daughter
Having a parent in jail takes its toll on children

When her husband was jailed for manslaughter, she suffered a breakdown and saw her two young children suffer as a result of their father's sudden absence.

Unable to stay in their London home, they went to a refuge and then a new home in a new city.

"It was a devastating time," she says. Her three-year-old son started bed-wetting and her nine-year-old daughter was so upset by the sudden separation from friends she needed counselling.

Such experiences are not as uncommon as people may think, campaigners say.

When a parent is sent to jail it often means the loss of a large part of the family income, says Farida Anderson of the Partners of Prisoners and Families Support Group.

If a prisoner has a good family unit to return home to they're less likely to re-offend, so it's good for society
Lucy Gampell, Action for Prisoners' Families

The emotional impact can be even greater. For a partner left behind the separation can feel "like a bereavement" and many choose to pretend they have split-up, rather than admit their husband or wife is in prison, Ms Anderson says.

Such decisions have knock-on effects for the children who, burdened with the secret, are unable to get the extra help they need at school, or from friends.

While Anita has not told her children to keep their father's crime secret, her daughter, now 12, decided to do just that.

"She has had to make new friends and because of the shame of it she can't tell them."

Community prisons

While crimes as serious as the one committed by Anita's husband inevitably lead to lengthy sentences and family break-ups, the government wants to do more to keep families together, particularly for those prisoners whose crimes were less serious.

The one good side of it is that I have become a lot closer to my daughters

Plans for "community prisons" with relatively modest levels of security and closer links to the local area have been outlined by the Home Secretary.

Charles Clarke said re-offending falls when prisoners are helped to "reintegrate into society through developing their relations with their friends and family".

"If a prisoner has a good family unit to return home to they're less likely to re-offend, so it's good for society," says Lucy Gampell of Action for Prisoners' Families.

'Absolutely woeful'

It is often those things that seem relatively simple that hinder a family's efforts to stay in touch with a prisoner.

Some complain of "days on the telephone" trying to organise routine visits.

There can be long and tiring trips to distant prisons.

Children who have been excited by the prospect of seeing their parent then go through the confusion and disappointment of waiting for the next visit.

Maintaining family ties despite such problems is worthwhile, however, says "David", a father of two young girls, as his wife comes towards the end of a 15-month sentence for indecent assault.

Having been left upset and confused by the sudden absence of their mother, the two girls - aged nine and five - were buoyed by the trips to see her, despite the "sterile" prison atmosphere.

A four-day home visit helped prepare them for her return, but Mike knows the experience will not suddenly be forgotten when they are reunited.

"The one good side of it is that I have become a lot closer to my daughters, but the other side of it is that their relationship with their mum is not going to be the same."

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