19:15, February 24 351 0 theguardian.com

2018-02-24 19:15:04
Letters: prisons fail us all – policy has to change

Your report on the crisis in our prison system (“Are Britain’s prisons facing a meltdown?”, Focus) rightly poses the question: what is prison for? However, we have been asking the same question for the past 25 years and we need some tried and tested answers.

Simple rhetoric such as “prison works” have only contributed to the doubling of the prison population. In 1989, the then home secretary, Douglas Hurd, said that “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse”. Judging by the increase in violence, drug use and suicides, imprisonment continues to make bad people even worse and less likely to be rehabilitated.

Hurd also oversaw one of the few decreases in the prison population by bolstering the work of the probation service and increasing the use of community sentences, which must be part of the answer to the current crisis.

The privatisation and subsequent failings of some aspects of the probation service have undermined its potential to be part of the solution. I hope that the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, with his positive attitude will stay long enough in post to repair the foundations of the probation service and rebuild its pre-privatisation, gold standard reputation.

Perhaps devolving some of the commissioning of local probation services to the police and crime commissioners could provide local solutions to local problems of reoffending and rehabilitation.

John Bensted

Retired chief probation officer of Gloucestershire Probation Trust


Nobody could have read the article without very considerable concern. However, as a former prison governor and subsequently a consultant criminologist and author, it did not in the least surprise me.

This crisis has been deepening since the mid-1990s to the extent of becoming “business as usual”. Five successive governments (three Conservative and two Labour) and 15 home secretaries or, since 2007, justice secretaries, have presided over a criminal justice process that has sleepwalked into a state of chaos and shameful mismanagement. It is therefore unfair to lay the blame entirely at the door of the prisons.

The root causes of the malaise are simply stated: ill-considered penal policy-making resulting in an uncontrolled escalation in the daily prison population and a persistent overcrowding of prisons to the extent of making them virtually unmanageable in a safe and disciplined manner. In 2017, some 80 of the 118 prisons were “crowded” or worse.

The time has now come to redo the maths, revise the political rhetoric of prisons and enable them to deliver their essential social purpose. We might profitably start with a rebuttal of the infamous claim in 1993 by the then home secretary, Michael Howard, one of the original architects of the penal crisis, that “prison works”.

Let us be clear: prisons fail. They do so because too many minor offenders are sent there and overload their capacity to deliver their service to the state and the public. Prisons are, in their present state, unsafe and unstable for prisoners and prison staff. Even worse, they are more than 60% ineffective in reducing reoffending within a year of release, at prohibitive cost to the taxpayer. The time has come to reverse this deplorable situation in the national interest. Politicians, not HM Prison Service, carry the responsibility for making this happen.

David J Cornwell

Conderton, Gloucestershire

Practical rentals for families

“Plentiful, decent places to live should be the priority, not home ownership” (Commentk) is a very welcome statement and the nature of private rental contracts gives additional support to Rowan Moore’s argument.

Private rental contracts of 12 months are totally unsuitable for families as they can require frequent changes of accommodation (and hence perhaps schooling too). As fewer young people will become owner-occupiers, there is a probability that there will be many more families bringing up their children in privately rented accommodation.

This rental contract issue affecting families has not been given much attention, in contrast to the concerns about falling home ownership. Even if the law were to be changed, it seems unlikely that there will be a plentiful supply of private landlords eager to offer family accommodation. However, local government and social housing providers can offer rental contracts that are more suitable for families. These bodies should be enabled to provide plentiful family housing at different levels of affordability.

Nicholas Vosper

London N2

Circumcision consequences

A study in the US (Bollinger D, Lost Boys: An Estimate of US Circumcision-Related Infant Deaths. Thymos 2010) found that there were approximately 117 neonatal circumcision-related deaths annually in the US, about 1.3% of male neonatal deaths from all causes. This research exposes the statement that circumcision has “no long-term negative impact on the child” as dangerously misleading (“Iceland poised to be first European state to ban circumcision”, News). Male circumcision for non-medical reasons without consent is no longer acceptable. It is unnecessary, carries significant adverse consequences and contravenes a boy’s human right to integrity of the person and protection from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir’s proposed ban is the only logical and safe response.

John Hughes


Lessons from China

It was fascinating to read that the Chinese sent people abroad to get educated 30 years ago and are now backing their prowess with fat salaries and commanding positions under their Thousand Talents Plan (“China and the next great leap forward”, New Review). What a contrast to starving a country of its skilled workers and leading academics that we have endured under successive austerities from Thatcher on. But why do we only hear about China – admittedly a traditionally materialistic and sometimes violent culture – when its advances are presented as if some sort of threat?

Steve Gooch

East Sussex

More books, fewer drugs

“How reading about Dickens’s muffins and Sassoon’s eggs set me free from anorexia”, News) interested me so much that I have ordered a copy of The Reading Cure. The conventional “cure” (treatment, really; there is no cure) when I had anorexia was bed rest, a fattening diet supplemented with Complan and Largactil, a horrible drug that turns you into a blob. I have heard the illness described as “attention-seeking”, but I plead innocent; I had never heard of anorexia and only knew eating made me feel guilty.

I applaud Laura Freeman for finding so civilised a way of helping herself by reading about people who eat with gusto. I cringe when people apologise for what is on their plate or, worse, comment on what is on mine. It makes me feel like a bad, greedy child. Meals should be a pleasure and a time for conversation. I find it reassuring to read about people who eat without fuss. I never thought of relishing passages about feasting, but now I will. Maybe psychiatrists ought to dole out fewer drugs and offer patients a reading list.

Name and address withheld