Lottie Moggach: On 1 July 2016, my son’s father, Chris Atkins, was given a five-year prison sentence for fraud. Although I’d been in court for most of the trial, including the verdict the previous week, I didn’t go in for the sentencing. Instead, I stayed at my mum’s house, half-watching Wimbledon, with our three-year-old, Kit.
Chris later said that as he was led down to the cells at Southwark crown court, en route to HMP Wandsworth, he experienced an unexpected release – as if a vice that had been steadily tightening around his head had suddenly been loosened. And across London, when a friend texted me the news from court, I also felt a wave of relief. Chris and I were separated, but remained close, sharing custody of Kit, and for me, too, the strain of the prosecution – for a complicated, historical tax fraud – had been building for years. Now, it was over.
That day marked the beginning of a new, quieter phase of anxiety, as we turned our focus to Kit. How could Chris, our families and I limit the damage to him? I looked for guidance online, but the charities for prisoners’ families were rife with dire statistics, such as how 65% of boys with a convicted father go on to offend themselves, and at the very least are greatly at risk of depression and behavioural problems. Important facts, but not what I needed to hear.
What advice I did gather advocated age-appropriate honesty – no pretending that Chris was away on a very long business trip. As Kit was so young, we told him that Daddy had taken something that wasn’t his and was now on a “time out”. We didn’t use the word “prison”, but agreed that if Kit asked questions, we would be straight with him. But Kit didn’t, for a long time – even when visits to Wandsworth became a weekly routine.
Chris admitted his guilt – for kids to feel their dad has been unjustly taken from them must be ultimately more damaging
A few months in, I sat him down and spelled out the situation, in very simple terms. Kit listened, but didn’t respond. I think he just couldn’t absorb the fact that his dad was in a place for bad people. I’m thankful, though, that Chris admitted his guilt: I can understand the temptation to keep the father an unblemished hero; but for children to believe their father has been unjustly taken from them must be ultimately more damaging.
At first, I found the visits stressful, but fascinating. As Chris and Kit sat together, reading the same old Mr Men book, I’d watch the other tables. I was interested in the dynamics between couples – the prisoner, probably once quite domineering, now reliant on his partner – and wondered why the women stuck with these men. It all fed into my novel, Brixton Hill, which is about a relationship between a prisoner and a woman on the outside. But soon enough, the thrill of seeing inside a closed institution faded, and I was grateful when my mum offered to take Kit for the visits.
At the risk of stating the obvious, prisons are bleak, emotionally draining places. Today, I still don’t like going near that bit of London; even Chris’s father, who is the most rational person on the planet, says that he avoids getting trains that stop at Wandsworth Common.
When Chris moved to an open prison, visits were more relaxed, and he and Kit could play together. Still, I think it was the effort made outside the visits that did most to sustain their relationship. I have several boxes of mail from Chris to Kit; as well as letters, he made magazines featuring Kit’s favourite CBeebies characters, and, for special occasions, asked an artistic fellow inmate to create intricate pop-up cards. The prison prohibited inmates receiving drawings or photos (apparently a child’s sketch was once sprayed with liquid spice), but I discovered that postcards from the TouchNote app were accepted. These are photos sent from your phone as printed postcards; we sent so many that Chris papered an entire cell wall with them.
I bought Kit a yellow phone that was exclusively for his dad’s calls; when it rang, whatever Kit was doing, he would dash to it. And gradually, Chris was allowed out on day release, and then weekend home visits. Then, finally, after two and a half years, he had done his time, and we collected him and his belongings, stuffed into clear plastic bin bags, from the car park of HMP Spring Hill in Aylesbury.
I’m not a remotely saintly person, but I never felt angry with Chris. I might have done, had he not made such an effort with Kit when he was inside, but he could not have done more to make our son feel cherished. Now, four years on from that July sentencing day, Kit and his dad are extremely close. They share a buoyant character. But there are signs of damage. Kit has extreme separation anxiety: he sleeps badly; he can’t bear nature programmes about young animals being left by their parents. We talk about prison openly – Chris has recently published a memoir about his time inside – and Kit will engage, but not often. He’s nearly eight now, and much more interested in discussing his deep desire for a Nintendo Switch than exploring his feelings about his dad’s incarceration. And, actually, I’m glad about that.
Deborah Moggach: Kit, my grandson, is a darling boy whom I love with all my heart. I didn’t realise, until I became a grandmother, how overwhelming this love can be – a coup de foudre, unmuddied by responsibility and sharpened by an awareness of passing time. How fleeting childhood is! Us grandparents realise this. “They grow up so fast,” we say, shaking our grizzled heads in wonder.
The worst moment was when Chris removed Kit’s seat from his bike… Kit would've long outgrown it when his father came out
In Kit’s case, this had an extra resonance, when we learned that his father would miss a great chunk of his childhood. After the trial verdict came in – on the morning of the Brexit referendum result, to add to the surreality of the day – Chris was given a week to put his affairs in order before being sent to jail. It was a week so heartbreaking that it’s hard to write about. Lottie and I spent most of that time with Chris in his house, dismantling Kit’s childhood. His toys were given away, because he’d be too old for them when his father returned. His trampoline was put on Freegle. The worst moment came when Chris unscrewed Kit’s little seat from his bike, because Kit would have long outgrown it when his father came out. It felt as if we were preparing for a death – two deaths.
In our different ways we all tried to prepare Kit for what was going to happen. This is almost impossible with a three-year-old. Time is a bewildering prospect. So are the concepts of guilt and punishment. We tried to explain that his father was going away to a building – we didn’t call it prison – and that Kit wouldn’t see him except for visits. Kit was pretty disturbed. Our only consolation was that he was too young to be bullied at school. God help older children in this situation.
Then Chris disappeared into Wandsworth prison. Kit, Lottie and I were already very close, and in and out of each other’s houses. Now I was needed more than ever, for stability and continuity in a young boy’s life – a grandmother’s role at the best of times, and now more necessary. During the following months I was profoundly impressed by the way my daughter coped with a confused child who missed his father horribly. It was a bureaucratic and emotional nightmare, but she kept them in touch in every way she could, and visited regularly.
Nothing prepares you for the trauma of prison visits. It’s nerve-racking in every possible way, especially with a young child: endless queues, ID checks, security, and an overwhelming sense of zero tolerance. You can’t bring anything in except money for the cafe – not even a Kleenex. Everything has to be put into a locker and if you don’t have a pound coin, tough – they don’t give change. You’re shunted from one locked holding pen to another, doors clanging shut behind you, with an increasingly restless child who has nothing to eat or drink, and nothing to play with.
Finally, you arrive in the visiting hall and the prisoners file in. You have only an hour – often less – and it’s agonising to see men trying to bond with the children they’ve been missing so painfully. The cafe there makes this worse. Everyone wants to buy treats to eat together, but the queue is so long that half the visiting time can be spent waiting in line, while the prisoner sits helplessly at his table. I’d offer to take orders for people in the queue, so they could sit down with their man. “I’m very happy standing here,” I’d say, “because it gives time for my grandson to talk to his father.” But everyone was so intimidated by the system that they’d shake their heads.
You’re not allowed much physical contact, and the worst moment came when Kit was rushing around and hurt himself. He burst into tears, but because Chris wasn’t allowed out of his seat, he couldn’t pick him up and comfort him. Prison has a lot in common with the pandemic – lockdown, distancing rules. Heaven knows how prisoners’ families have coped during this period, with prisoners doubly in lockdown.
Chris has been out now for 18 months. He adores his son, and they are making up for lost time. But it’s time that can never be recaptured. Maybe us old grandparents realise this more than anyone.