Deborah Orr: Prison is not the place for people who are a danger to themselves

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Prisons are a thoroughly necessary evil. Everybody understands that. Above all, they are the places where we put people who are a danger to the rest of us. And though there remains a public perception that prisons are "soft", institutions where incarceration even for a number of years is some kind of picnic, nothing could be further from the truth.

Our prisons are in a hellish state – overcrowded, understaffed, meagrely resourced and dangerous. It's been like that for so long now that even the doughtiest of reform campaigners must sometimes wonder why they bother. They do keep on banging away though, thankless task that it is.

The Howard League for Penal Reform this week obtained statistics revealing that recorded acts of violence in prisons have risen by 31 per cent in the past five years, with a staggering 180,000 incidents logged during that period. The majority – 104,414 – were acts of self-harm, and females committed more than half of those, even though women and girls make up just 5 per cent of the prison population. Violence in Young Offender Institutions has also risen sharply, by almost 60 per cent.

It says a great deal that this violence is overwhelmingly directed against the self, among men as well as among women and children. It has long been acknowledged that many people are in prison because of crimes they committed while struggling with mental health problems. These figures show all too starkly the cruelty of punishing people because of their illness or their mental frailty.

It's widely known that the prison population has expanded hugely since Labour came to power. It is less well understood that the leap in prison numbers – from 45,000 to 83,000 – started with the amalgamation of the probation and prison services in 1992. The new arrangement – the National Offender Management Service – has been a disaster.

There is huge need for a return to the professional ethos promoted by the probation system. In a manifesto launched by three former probation officers, Will Watson, Chris Hignett and Martin Page, it is explained that a full pre-sentence report by a probation officer is "particularly important where the court is considering requirements to be placed in a community order concerning treatment for mental health problems, drug abuse or alcohol abuse, whether residential or non-residential".

What these important statistics on violence in prisons show all too clearly is that prisons are no longer places where people are put when they are danger to others. They have become places where people are put when they are a danger to themselves. How unimaginably stupid this is, to lock people up with only their own torment for company, and with seemingly boundless opportunity to inflict their own harsh punishments on themselves.

We like to think of ourselves as living in a liberal democracy. But no liberal democracy should go to such lengths – whether self-defeating or not – to curtail the activities of people who are only damaging themselves. Imprisoning people, it is perfectly obvious, does not protect such people anyway. It merely allows them to harm themselves more deeply and more irrevocably, away from society's unforgiving eyes.

It has become the stuff of period drama, from the novels of Sarah Waters, to Clint Eastwood's film The Changeling: the horrible realisation that in the past people were imprisoned in asylums for long periods, not because they were mad but because they were troublesome. We have come full circle now, and this brutal new development is as great an affront to our humanity as those nightmarish old crimes against the individual.

Age is no barrier – until you hit 75

Sharon Stone, flashing her pins at Cannes, has apparently shown us that "50 is the new 20", as if Madonna doesn't do that daily. Gordon Brown is reportedly hanging on 63-year-old Joanna Lumley's every critical word, like a lovesick schoolboy, and for once everyone can understand where he's coming from.

But it's not only the stars, with their lovely bone structures, who are apparently ageless, or even 65-year-old explorers who sprint up Everest (well, one, Ranulph Fiennes, anyway). I went to a leaving do this week for a colleague I worked with long ago, and was only mildly surprised to find that the room was heaving with people who hadn't changed a bit in 10 or 15 years. It was like time travel.

Age does not wither us, in the way that it once was expected to. Until we get to 75. A survey conducted by the charity and voluntary organisation WRVS has uncovered a very sudden and rather scary change in attitude when that number is reached. Once you are 75 you are perceived as being not only "vulnerable" and "dependent", but also as "unhelpful" and even, bizarrely, "rude".

There's no denying that for many individuals, some of this is true. But still, the generalisation is breathtakingly prejudiced. The biographer Claire Tomalin, at 76, is the acme of beauty, wit and cleverness. The philosopher Mary Warnock, at 85, is too intellectually formidable for words.

My oldest friend, Colin McGregor, is 90 this year. As he leapt on the bus, he waved goodbye merrily as he swung round the pole and made for the upper deck. He is a gentleman, far too polite to hog a downstairs seat when somebody more infirm might need it. The only rude thing about Colin is his health.

Thanks to the Tamils, the 'exclusion zone' has been reclaimed

The rest of Britain may be pondering whether Parliament will ever again manage to get anything useful done. But Tamils exiled on these shores continue to show naive faith in Westminster's influence, even though their 47 days of protest have seen only the comprehensive fall of their resistance organisation.

Media reports about the gathering have often focused on the "disruption" and the protests's propensity to "bring London to a standstill". The truth is that London is only ever brought to a standstill by one thing – too many cars in the centre of a city with plenty of public transport.

I sympathise with the Tamils who are making their stand in London. They are doing it because they feel helpless in any other regard. And while their actions bring no influence to bear on the trouble in their homeland, they have offered graphic illustrations of some of our own difficulties at home.

In the week of the G20 summit I saw the Tamils being "kettled" by the police, who would not let them over Westminster Bridge to gather in Parliament Square. It was only the public revulsion against police tactics in the G20 protests that minded the police to let the protesters assemble before a sitting Parliament.

Such activity, of course, has been illegal since Parliament decided that it would rather not be discomfited by the sight of its electorate upbraiding it in the wake of unpopular and reckless decisions. That legislation is almost universally considered to have been a cowardly assault on democratic civil liberties.

Yet still one is expected to swallow the idea that the free movement of traffic is more important than the free expression of ideas and beliefs. There should be recognition that the Tamils have reclaimed the notorious "exclusion zone" against demonstration. The protesters may have done little to help Tamils. But they have helped Britain.

There are loads of advertisements around at the moment, all warning that if you lose your driving licence you'll be rendered as helpless as a child. I haven't been behind the wheel of a car for 20 years, but I'm resisting feeling infantilised by this patronising message. Especially after all those dire warnings about the collapse of sat-nav, and civilisation as we know it, unless somebody gets some hardware up there quick. Cars confer independence, do they? If freedom is sitting in a very expensive box, with an electronic voice telling you to bear left after 100 yards, I'd really rather crawl – like a baby or a line of city traffic.

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