Letters: Prison system

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Prison system is failing those who try to turn their life around

Sir: I was heartened to read Mark Oaten's superb "Face the facts: prison does not work" (8 August). He has voiced all the facts that I have, for some while, been lobbying various Government departments and interested parties about. I hope this article leads to some urgent action.

I am a regular prison volunteer, through the chaplaincy, and only last night met a young prisoner who exhibits the problems that the system puts in the way of achieving the drug-free life that he wishes for himself. Prisoners who are fortunate in having been given some hope of a new way of life while inside are let down when they leave prison, as there is no joined-up thinking about the ongoing and personal support they desperately need. He is awaiting sentencing, which has been delayed in the hope that funding will be made available for him to enter a residential drug rehab scheme, but with no certainty. He will find out in court next week.

I have also supported a lifer prisoner for some 12 years, visiting him regularly until, in 2003, he was moved out of reasonable reach (I have seen him twice in the past four years, however). He, like most lifers, is not an inherently violent character. His offence, albeit very serious, was undoubtedly a one-off event.

He received a 10-year tariff in 1988 and then for years became "lost" in the system. With 19 years in prison now in sight, at huge public cost, and for most of his time inside acknowledged to have been a "model" prisoner, he has just had another, long-delayed Parole Board review, which because of the chaotic state of preparations for these reviews, still gives him no hope of a move to an open prison.

My prisoner has worked hard to achieve a masters degree while inside, and is now a peer tutor for basic skills needs for his fellow prisoners, but his own chances of ever returning to a useful life in the community remain as remote as ever, to everyone's detriment, and at continuing huge public expense. His solicitor has assured me that he is one of many in a similar situation.

There is much good practice within the system, but there is resentment in many quarters against it being replicated wherever possible. The criminal justice system is in such a mess that I do not know where one can begin to put matters right, except to suggest that prison building funding should be redirected into community intensive learning centres (for basic and social skills), and small, effective drug, alcohol and mental health units that will support those who want to turn their lives around and cope in the community as useful and productive citizens. Those who achieve this hope at present do so in the face of a hugely negative system.



GCSE choices squeezed out

Sir: I believe Joan Bakewell misses the point when she states that "obviously children today are given far more choice over what they study" ("The end of history (as an A-level subject)" (10 August). A wider choice maybe, but certainly not more.

As a teenager, I was able to choose five subjects in addition to compulsory maths and English. This year my daughter was able to choose two. Compulsory maths, science, English, RE, PE, French and PSHE leave little time for anything else. Only after a written request to the school was she able to choose two humanities subjects (history and geography) that had been originally placed in the same option strand. It was allowed, however, at the expense of studying music. Latin, which she has been studying for three years, cannot be fitted into the timetable.

By the time they reach GCSE, young people have been engaged in compulsory education for 10 years. This should be the stage at which they are able to pursue those subjects that interest them, rather than having two more years of compulsory slogging dictated by government and educators. Can we then blame them if they lighten the load and inject some pleasure into their studies by choosing options such as photography?

Given "more" choice, we may actually see a resurgence in those subjects that are currently being squeezed out of the system. However, prompt action is needed before we find we have no one able to teach them.



Sir: Reports of the decline of school history are misplaced and potentially dangerous ("History A-level may become a thing of the past", 6 August). While the 2007 exam figures are not yet out, those for 2006 showed a healthy rise in entries. At A-level, there were 46,944 entries, a rise of 4 per cent over 2005. At GCSE, 221,657 took the subject, a rise of 1.9 per cent, and at AS-level, entries have risen by 40 per cent since 2001. Kathleen Tattershall, the chairman of the Chartered Association of Education Assessors, and others have to provide evidence if they are suggesting history is in trouble.

However, it is certainly true that the future may not be rosy. The new specifications due for implementation in September 2008 are indeed badly constructed and the decision to make coursework compulsory is bizarre and damaging. QCA, the curriculum watchdog, published a damning report on GCSE course work last September that demonstrated serious flaws in academic subjects.

It's since been announced that coursework will be dropped at GCSE. It cannot be logical for coursework to become compulsory at A-level when other academic subjects, such as psychology, are abandoning it. There must be an urgent campaign through organisations such as the Historical Association and the Institute for Historical Research to have this decision reversed.



Palestinians and the Jewish state

Sir: Tony Greenstein writes that "even in the area that the United Nations allocated to a Jewish state, a majority of the population were Arabs" (Letters, 8 August). That is wrong. The population in the area allocated by the UN for the Jewish state was 60 per cent Jewish and 40 per cent Arab. The Zionist leadership believed that after the state was established, there would be millions of Jews coming to Israel. And that is exactly what happened.

As David Ben-Gurion, soon to become Israel's first prime minister, told the leadership of his Labour (Mapai) party on 3 December 1947: "In our state there will be non-Jews as well, and all of them will be equal citizens; equal in everything without any exception; that is: the state will be their state as well."

Had the Arabs accepted the UN partition plan and not started their war of aggression against the Palestinian Jewish community, there would not have been a single refugee and their state would now be 59 years old. Unfortunately, they chose to start a war, which brought them nothing but disaster and caused the refugee problem.

Muhammad Nimr al-Khatib, a prominent Palestinian leader during the 1948 war, summed up his nation's dispersion in these words: "The Palestinians had neighbouring Arab states which opened their borders and doors to the refugees, while the Jews had no alternative but to triumph or to die."



Sir: I fully agree with the letter of David McDowall (8August) that the West has a duty, after its interference from the Sykes-Picot Pact and the Balfour Declaration onwards, to ensure that Gaza should be completely free with full control of its own borders and territorial waters, with financial compensation for all the wrongs done, as he says, to "jump-start the economy".

The problem then remains, as Tony Greenstein reminds us (also 8 August), that the West should ensure that the state of Israel should comply forthwith with all United Nations resolutions including the right of return of all the refugees of 1947-8 and 1967 and their descendants. It should then be possible to have a single truly democratic state including all the territory of Palestine as comprised in the original League of Nations mandate.

Given its duties as the original mandated power, the United Kingdom has a particular responsibility, but that does not exonerate either France or the United States from their share in the damage done to the Palestinian people.



Estuary is no place for an airport

Sir: Pensioning off Heathrow does not mean we should destroy the rejuvenated Thames gateway by relocating our largest airport to the adjacent Thames estuary ("Why Heathrow should be scrapped", 7 August).

The estuary is one of Europe's most important sites for birds in winter, when it hosts at least 200,000. During migration, in autumn and spring, there are even more. An airport proposal would take years to justify, given the area's extensive legal protection. And even if it won permission, the bird-strike risk would be enormous.

We are not obliged to cater for the predicted demand in air travel and we should not be doing so. The sector makes a disproportionate contribution to climate change and should be included in targets for cutting emissions.

The Government has earmarked the Thames gateway for low-carbon development, with wildlife areas incorporated to improve quality of life. Ministers want the area to be good for the environment while being good for residents and business, too. It won't be either unless the estuary stays intact.



Alzheimer's carers need more support

Sir: Thomas Sutcliffe's review of the ITV1 documentary Malcolm and Barbara: Love's Farewell (9 August) gave a balanced view of the long-term suffering of Alzheimer's patients. It also highlighted the plight of carers. During the film, Barbara was in despair in the way she had been "blackmailed" over respite.

I sympathise greatly, as I too have been continually held to ransom over respite. Social services seem to think that I should either give up work completely and care for my mother full-time, or agree to have her permanently in a care home, against her wishes. The continual antagonism surrounding this is compromising my work, my health and even the time available to care for my mother. I thought social services were there to support carers.



Iraq deaths can't be termed 'genocide'

Sir: I would not argue with the points made by Gabriel Carlyle and Mike Tope (letters, 10 August) or defend our policy in Iraq. But the definition of "genocide" is not about numbers of dead from any community, however caused, or by whom, but about intent.

Acts of genocide, according to the definition accepted in international law, are acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. The atrocities in Rwanda and Srebenica clearly met this definition, the war in Iraq does not. Even if it had the consequences of the destruction of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, if that was not the intent, then genocide is not the term to use.

The arguments against what we and the US are doing in Iraq are overwhelming - we don't need to misappropriate this very specific and tragically necessary term to strengthen them.



How meat eaters ignore the abattoir

Sir: It's a strange world that Janet Street-Porter lives in (9 August), peopled with waddling "miserable lesbian vegetarians" and "can't cook, won't cooks" who prefer "burgers, kebabs and barbecue bits" to "carcasses".

The reason you no longer see meat hanging up by hooks, Janet, apart from hygiene, is an increasingly uncomfortable awareness of the arguments against eating meat among the general public. If it's readymade and packaged then it's more acceptable to those who like to pretend it has nothing to do with the abattoir. And you don't even have to be a vegetarian to work that one out - though it helps.



Briefly... They need a bigger tent

Sir: The Reverend Walter Attwood (letters, 10 August) seems to be confused. It is not the fact that the Scouts are a theist movement that is disputed, rather the organisation's claim to be inclusive, when it is clearly not.



A comedy of error

Sir: The Globe is rightly famed for its innovative productions, but I would advise Dominic Dromgoole against mounting a production that has The Merchant of Venice as its first half and Othello as the second, as the synopsis in your "Othello Shakespeare" booklet seems to recommend. The synopsis is said to be adapted from the book Shakespeare's Words by myself and Ben Crystal. Readers will perhaps be relieved to learn that in our book Othello falls in love with Desdemona, at the outset of the play, not Portia, and that Shylock does not mysteriously transmute into Iago.



NFU is open to vaccines

Sir: Despite what Nigel Morris says ("Should cattle be vaccinated to prevent foot-and-mouth disease?" 7 August), the NFU has a completely open mind on the issue of vaccination of livestock against foot-and-mouth disease. Circumstances have changed dramatically since 2001 and if vaccination is the right option for dealing with this or any future outbreak then vaccination is what we will support.



It's Caesar with a hard C

Sir: I can with certainty say that Julius pronounced his family name "Kaisar" rather than "Seezer" (letter, 9 August). Greek historians of the time and St Luke (Chapter 2, verse 1) transliterate the Latin "Caesar" into the Greek "Kaisar", that is, with a Greek kappa and sigma. The value of these consonants has remained constant to this day. The sound of many letters in ancient times can be proved by studying the representation in Greek and Latin literature of animal and bird sounds (for example, in Aristophanes' The Birds and The Frogs), which will not have changed over the years.



Lucky like Napoleon?

Sir: Napoleon insisted on lucky generals. Terrorism, floods, foot-and-mouth disease ... has New Labour landed us with an unlucky Prime Minister?