A child's experience of her mother going to prison

Cheyenne visited her mum while she was in prison

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Every year, many thousands of children experience separation from a mother who is sent to prison, a trauma which in many cases can also mean losing their home.

When Cheyenne was 13, her mum was caught trying to smuggle drugs into prison and earned herself a four-year sentence.

As a result she has been moved around a lot, living with different relatives across south Wales. She is one of the growing number of children living apart from a mother locked up in prison.

The Howard League for Penal Reform estimated 17,240 children were separated from their mothers in England and Wales in 2010, the most recent figures available.

Cheyenne found it hard to cope. "I was angry and disappointed. I used to watch Bad Girls on the telly and it's rough what they used to get up to and I'd think - 'Is that what my mum's doing?'"

She ended up living with her granddad. She didn't have a room of her own so slept in her aunt's bed or on the sofa. Her belongings were mostly strewn over the house or kept in carrier bags.

Parents in prison

  • It is estimated that there are 160,000 children affected each year by having a parent in prison (Home Office).
  • In 2006, more children were affected by the imprisonment of a parent than by a divorce.
  • Just 9% of children whose mothers are in prison are cared for by their fathers in their mothers' absence (Home Office).
  • Only half of the women who were in contact with their children prior to imprisonment had received a visit since going to prison (Social Exclusion Unit).

Research compiled in the Prison Reform Trust's Prison Factfile June 2011

She had relatively few possessions, but those she prized most were letters and photos from her mother kept in a purple plastic box with an inscription on the side warning snoopers to "Stay Out". For Cheyenne, as for many people with a loved one in prison, they were treasured keepsakes.

"I normally get quite emotional when I get letters from my mum. I recognise the envelopes. She decorates the envelopes and I know her handwriting. Every year she always sends a Valentine's Day card - she always writes Mummy at the end. Never Mum. Always Mummy.

"I really miss her. Some days I have my depressing days and I really break down."

Diana Ruthven, from the charity Action for Prisoners' Families, says it's particularly difficult for children of Cheyenne's age.

"Being a teenager is a very transitional time, during which it's particularly difficult to be without your mother," she says.

"In some ways, it's more difficult for teenage children to be without a parent than it is for younger children."

'Upsetting'

Cheyenne was entitled to an hour-long prison visit once a fortnight. But the prison was in Gloucestershire - over 50 miles from her new home in south Wales so she only managed to visit five times in two years.

Ahead of her latest visit Cheyenne experienced mixed emotions. "I am excited, nervous, scared. Teachers at school can tell when I've got a visit coming up because I am over-hyperactive and can't shut up."

But for young people unaccustomed to prison, the regulations can be intimidating.

Start Quote

I normally get quite emotional when I get letters from my mum”

End Quote Cheyenne

"At least we're able to hug and kiss at this prison. At other prisons they weren't allowed because of the drugs which were being passed through lips. We weren't even allowed to hold hands, but I did anyway and I made sure they saw it. Because at the end of the day, that's my mum."

With only an hour to catch up. There is always a lot to squeeze in. As well as chatting about hair and nails, Cheyenne has to confess that she's had problems at school.

Being locked up doesn't stop mum Yasmin giving her a ticking off: "Cheyenne you've got to learn to be humble. Do as I say not as I do."

Before she knows it, the time is gone and it is time for Cheyenne to leave.

"The time goes so quickly. Leaving is the worst part. It's upsetting leaving them there, knowing you can walk out those gates but they're stuck inside."

Cheyenne's mother welcomed visits from her daughter, but according to Ruthven, mothers often don't want to be visited by their family.

Cheyenne Cheyenne eagerly awaited her mum's release

"Women sometimes don't want their children to see them in jail, so they don't have their families visit as often as men do," she said.

For children missing one or both parents in prison, little support is available, she argued.

"The government will only try to keep track of a child if they're at risk," she said.

"If the school knows, they might be able to provide some support. But that's dependent on them being told about it by the parent or a guardian. And there's no obligation for them to tell the school."

'Better relationship'

After two years, Cheyenne's mum was due to be released, an event Cheyenne eagerly anticipated.

"I am going to have a wicked life when my mum gets out. I'll be a happier person. It is hard [being without your mum]. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

"I dunno, it's your mum - she gave birth to you. She carried you for nine months - you've got a bond so it is hard really."

But the reality is more complex. Within minutes of her release, her mum couldn't help commenting on Cheyenne's behaviour.

"She oozes attitude. I hear her on the phone saying 'Shut up' to someone older than her. She wasn't brought up like that so we've got to sit down and have a good talk.

"I've got my hands full. I am not saying her attitude is to be expected, but sometimes her actions are because of me. And because of my guilt I allow her to get away with things."

FIND OUT MORE

  • Prison, My Family and Me is on BBC Three at 21:00 BST on Tuesday 3 and Tuesday 10 April.
  • Watch both episodes online or find out about repeats at the above link

Life together again meant sharing a cramped one-bedroom flat. And, unused to each other's company, tempers soon flared.

Cheyenne said: "It's like she's come back and wants to be in control straight away. I don't like it one bit. She's got to realise I am not a little girl like I was when she went away. I was all excited when she come out but now I don't know what I want."

The arguments increased steadily over the months until Cheyenne eventually decided to move out. Now, she's back in Wales where she's living in a hostel for homeless teenagers.

Cheyenne's case is typical of children whose parents are released from prison, said Ruthven. Often, they find it difficult to go back to their old lives.

"There needs to be more support for both parents and children when they come out of prison," she said.

"There should be more work done to prepare the parent and their family, especially in the weeks running up to the parent's release."

Now 17, Cheyenne is optimistic about the future. She is studying to be a hairdresser and in regular touch with her mother.

"I still speak to my mum every single day. Our relationship has got loads better again. I think because of prison we both got used to being on our own. Now we're close but I don't think we can ever live together like we did."

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