A former Liverpool drug dealer who was once one of the country’s most wanted men has highlighted the emotional toll on children whose parents serve long prison sentences.
Paul Walmsley, 51, lived out a rock and roll lifestyle through his involvement in the drug trade, travelling the world and partying with famous faces from music and football at the weekend.
Paul, who grew up in Norris Green, was able to buy an executive home in Burbo Bank and never worried about the bills on the doormat. But when all his criminal associates were suddenly arrested, he fled the country and became a wanted man.
At one point Paul’s mugshot appeared on Sky News when he was a fugitive wanted by Crimestoppers trying to avoid the attention of police in Spain.
The Norris Green man returned to the UK in 2011 and handed himself in at Copy Lane police station. He was later jailed for ten years after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply Class A drugs.
Paul has since turned his life around after being released from prison several years ago. Today the Liverpool man is a reformed character and works with organisations across the city to try and deter young people from becoming involved in organised crime.
Paul recently spoke to the ECHO about the sensitive subject of prisoners being separated from their children, which has particular resonance during the Christmas period.
Paul said: “Children and the families of prisoners in my opinion serve as much of a sentence as those who are convicted. For any parent who loves their children then they’ll know that being apart from them can be horrendous. So, add into the mix a prison sentence and the stigma that comes with that tends to breed harm.
“There’re loads of break-ups when a prison sentence is imposed on a relationship. The lack of communication can create a divide and that’s when family ties are stretched to breaking point. Its all down to the individuals involved, some relationships totally break down and are irreparable, yet others become stronger and continue.
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“Prisoners tend to worry about their children and the lack of contact they have with them. Being overprotective and catastrophising ( irrational thoughts) breeds paranoia at times.
“It’s not common but kids can go into care under last resort measures. Family members usually step in and become surrogate parents in situations when its looking like the local authority care team are ready to take actions. You don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it. Regret and remorse always come later.”
Paul said that following the death of his sister while he was in prison he had expected to be able to attend her funeral. But on the morning of the funeral he was told that he could not go because of staffing issues at the prison.
He said: “My sister passed away while I was in custody and it was awful not to be able to be there for my family. Not being able to say goodbye you could say was punishment and some might see that as just, I get that. However, being told I was allowed to attend the funeral and then have my family bring my clothes to a prison which was a 200 mile round trip and then to be told on the morning of the funeral that I was not allowed to go. Well that was a hard pill to swallow.
“Along with my mother being diagnosed with cancer and dementia in the same week as my sister’s funeral the thought of me sitting there in my black suit has spurred me on to live a life without crime.”
Dr Lorna Brookes, a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, has spent the last 12 years supporting children who have a parent in prison.
Dr Brookes is the founder of Time Matters, an organisation dedicated to supporting children who have a parent in prison.
She said: “Having a parent or family member in prison is a highly traumatic experience for children. Some children have actually witnessed the arrest of their parent which is terribly upsetting. Some are bullied and suffer community backlash. They are filled with sadness that their parent or loved one is away from them.
“Some children worry about the family member inside, and the family on the outside. They often have to grow up way beyond their years.
“Children with a parent in prison are an entirely neglected group in our society. They are innocent victims of a crime they did not commit, but suffer the consequences of the punishment which is supposedly directed at the offender.
“When I explain to people that I work to help children with a parent in prison the most common response I get is ‘I’ve never really thought about the children before’.
“There are around 3,000 children on Merseyside with a parent in prison.”
Dr Brookes described what normally happened when a child’s parent is jailed.
She said: “Most children are cared for by a family member which is normally the mother. But many elderly relatives care for their grandchildren when parents are imprisoned with little or no support at all. However, there have been a few cases where the remaining carer has been left with such little support, and have suffered malicious community backlash, that they have not been able to cope. In these cases, when the remaining carer’s mental health has deteriorated, children have sadly been taken into care.
“I remember one case, where the dad was imprisoned for a serious offence, and he left a mother and three children. The community became abusive to the children and mother, throwing bottles at the house and writing offensive graffiti on their door. The family had to be moved into a refuge. They were then moved out of their home area for their safety. The mother became extremely withdrawn and depressed and in the end the children were taken into care.”
Dr Brookes said that she was aware of the argument popular with certain sections of the press that parents should think of their children before committing offences.
She said: “I would say the children have done nothing wrong. No matter what the circumstances, even in serious cases, the children tend to miss imprisoned parent terribly. This separation anxiety often causes sleep and eating problems, self-harm and even regression.
“Children tend to feel so ashamed from the negative press surrounding their family that they blame themselves; many do not want to go to school for fear of what others will say about their family, or ask them questions they don’t know how to answer.
“Many children I support cry themselves to sleep every night missing their parent. The argument that they are ‘better off without them’ does nothing to comfort these children.”
Dr Brookes said that the prison bosses did their best to ensure inmates were able to maintain contact with children and close family.
She said: “I know that some prisons work extremely hard to provide meaningful contact between parents in prison, and their children. This has huge benefits to the children and helps them worry less about how their parent’s wellbeing and can cope better. Child friendly visits last longer than a standard visits and are particularly helpful.
“Its important to understand that children and families need visits and contact to cope – its not just for the prisoners. Taking away visits punishes the families who have done nothing wrong.
“Having a parent in prison in one of the ten defined adverse childhood experiences (ACE) according to the World Health Organisation and children of prisoners tend to have multiple of adverse childhood experiences. When children have ACEs (traumatic childhood events) and are left without support, naturally they suffer more as adults.
“This is why Time Matters exists – to provide an early intervention service to mitigate against their trauma. Most children that access support go on to do extremely well.”
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Paul added: ” I think this has been a little bit of a taboo subject on Merseyside and that we should talk about it more. The truth is that most criminals in prison have children.
“But I am not creating excuses and saying its wrong to lock people up because they have kids. I am saying there should be more awareness of the impact prison sentences have on families. That is all.”
Today Paul works with a number of local charities and grass roots organisations across the city.
He said: “I spend most of my time going into schools and colleges across the region to tell them my story. Basically I tell the kids that if you want to ruin your life, become a drug dealer. Yes it will pay for the house and the nice car but then when one day the whole lot will just go and you will be left with nothing.
“And if you think being told that you can’t go to your sister’s funeral is cool, yes crime is for you. “
Paul said that he was now focuses and tackling the issues of exploitation associated with County Lines drug gangs, and was optimist about the future. He said: “Yes obviously rebuilding my life after prison has been a challenge but I am getting there. I have just launched my new website and I would like to thank Matt Townson from Techedia for all his support with that project.”
Prison bosses said that they appreciated the importance of family contact and provided secure phones to prisoners, including Walton jail.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We understand importance of maintaining family contact – which is proven to reduce reoffending.
“Secure in-cell phones are being installed across the estate, including at HMP Liverpool, while video calls, secure handsets and extra credit have ensured family contact throughout the pandemic.”