Prison suicide, tsunami and others

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Dehumanising prison system is to blame for suicide rate

Dehumanising prison system is to blame for suicide rate

Sir: I read your article "Outrage as prison suicides equal record" (1 January) with particular interest. Having spent five years of a seven-year sentence in prison, I encountered many men who were contemplating or who had harmed themselves. A few resulted in suicide.

Although having first-hand experience of mental health problems, being confronted by teenagers slashing arms and other parts of their bodies was never a welcome sight. Statistics reveal a third of us will experience mental ill-health and so the statistics cannot be shrugged off by explaining that prison suicide/self-harm is undertaken by persons with a history of mental illness. Nor should the situation be justified by criticising budget expenditures or reductions. The problem lies with the social expectations of prisons and with sentences.

In spite of close friendships developing between prisoners, nothing alleviates the underlying problem of isolation which creates the distress and psychological trauma resulting in self-harm. Prisons are single-sex microcosms of the wider social structure, yet scant regard is given to men separated from families. They are transferred to any vacant bed, often severing contact between the prisoner and outside world, frequently resulting in a breakdown of family ties. This increases the agony of isolation and encourages further anti-social behaviour. Society believes offenders are incarcerated for public good, yet prison sentences produce life-long stigma, so increasing the risk of failing to reintegrate into society later.

Gay prisoners face heightened pressures. Prisons are predominantly heterosexual and they endure greater stress coping with their sexuality and social difference. Prison officers appreciate the difficulties but can do little other than hope the gay man isn't persecuted. I mostly coped but others did not have the strength to endure their oppressive circumstances and most days would see them with fresh, bloody tram lines on arms or chests.

As a society, we create our own monsters. A change in social attitudes may be the most positive way to decrease self-harm rates. Prisoners are not parasites or scum. Each is an individual human being with needs to be addressed. If we fail to alter established belief-systems then we will see increasing self-harm rates and will create insurmountable obstacles for offenders, both in prison and when they return to the community.

Newport, South Wales

Tsunami: a foretaste of climate change

Sir: Johann Hari (Opinion, 31 December) raised some interesting points regarding a seemingly inevitable future "era of weather of mass destruction". It is certainly something that is around the corner and, while acknowledging that the tsunami was caused by a fluke of geology, he is right to ask why we don't take this as a warning of how vulnerable we are to the forces of wind, rain and sea?

There is still too much general ignorance of the dangers of global warming in the world, in particular in the US, so why don't we in Europe take a stronger stance and lead more by example, by not only meeting, but surpassing the Kyoto treaty promises? With Europe united on this issue, we could really make a difference to the future of the world.

The generosity of spirit shown by people all over the world in donating money for the tsunami appeal funds is heartwarming to see; and that spirit is there to be tapped into, if the leaders of the world really want to galvanise it as, along with big business, every individual has a part to play in helping to stop climate change. So come on Mr Blair, take the lead on this issue, so that we don't have to get used to a future of extreme weather events, costing many lives.


Sir: Am I alone in finding President Bush's efforts to co-ordinate the relief effort for the Indian Ocean disaster both hypocritical and slightly nauseating, when Bush's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol is exposing all the low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean to significant rises in sea-level and a very uncertain future.

Just for the record, current emissions of carbon dioxide, expressed as tons of carbon per head of population, is 5.5 for the US, 2.2 for the OECD, 0.8 for China and 0.3 for Indian. Yet the US refuses to sign the protocol because the restraints on India and China are not severe enough! Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have risen from 180 parts per million to 370 since the start of the industrial revolution and are currently rising at a rate of 1.5 ppm per year, though recently this rate has increased to 2 ppm per year.

The US shows no sign of cutting back on its profligate use of energy. In fact, emissions of carbon dioxide from the US have increased by 17 per cent since 1990, the baseline year for the Kyoto Protocol. The US could achieve a lot more for the countries around the Indian Ocean by showing a sense of responsibility towards future generations and signing the Kyoto Protocol.

Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

Sir: An abrupt decline in tourism to south and south-east Asia would be an economic disaster for those countries. But the continued growth of long-distance tourism would be an ecological disaster.

The only solution is for countries which now depend on tourism to develop their economies in more sustainable ways. Many of them will need outside help to do so. If Tony Blair means what he says about the need to combat climate change, he will make this a theme of his presidency of the G8.

London NW1

Sir: Johann Hari is writing opinion dressed up as fact. A tsunami caused by a sub-marine earthquake cannot be compared to the effects of climate change. The former is the delivery of trillions of tons of water in seconds, the latter a century-long alteration in the constant shift of global elements. It's typical of environmentalists to leap at the chance to claim almost any natural disaster as ammunition for their cause. But real scientists only agree that there is a combination of natural and artificial factors affecting the weather. Which of these two is having the greater effect is not known.

Perhaps the only useful warning the tsunami has given us is just how unpredictable are all natural events.

London NW1

Sir: Having spent the past few days watching Thai television and meeting victims of the waves which struck southern Thai coasts on Boxing Day, I am full of admiration for the national response to this catastrophe.

However, a major part of the problem for the region is the enormous commercial pressures and make-believe advertising which underlie the entire tourism industry. How can money possibly not guarantee the sun and sands and cheap everything that all Europeans (and many others) have come to regard as their annual privilege? And yet even before the catastrophe struck Thailand, the waves were two metres high, there was an abundance of jellyfish, poor sanitation and mosquitoes, and many of the hotels - as we now know - had been built illegally on nature reserves.

Strong national and international legislation is needed to curb these commercial excesses and introduce a measure of realism into the holiday business.


Sir: Your article "Guilt-free guide to holidays" (1 January) is misleading. "Green tourism", however thoughtful, is an oxymoron when it involves air travel, as this is a major contributor to carbon dioxide emissions. True, there are parts of the world which rely on the money which tourism brings, but do we really think we've done them a big favour by making them dependent on us?

London NW5

Sir: Janet Street-Porter (Opinion, 30 December) castigates the Prime Minster for remaining on holiday when so many millions of people in so many countries have either died or had their homes and livelihoods destroyed by the earthquake in the Indian Ocean.

She is right. While you could argue that he is on a hiding to nothing whether stays away or is accused of making political capital out of coming home, surely the overriding reason for coming home is that here is a real case for joined-up thinking and action between government departments and the military, who in principle have the capabilities and resources to act and deploy quickly. Surely the role of the Prime Minister should be to lead the response to this ghastly disaster strategically, collaboratively and from the front.

Marlborough, Wiltshire

Sir: Compare and contrast our Prime Minister's relaxed approach to the worst catastrophe in Asia in living memory, with his hyperactive, near-hysterical and ongoing reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York. At 150,000 Asian lives to 3,000 US lives, it is clear where Mr Blair feels his political interests lie.

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Sontag in Sarajevo

Sir: When Susan Sontag directed Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo, Bosnia's capital was under a murderous siege and Sontag's only entry route was the hazardous tunnel down Mount Igman. John Calder's obituary (30 December) wonders why "no one asked questions about the cost of official and governmental assistance she must have received to make her visit possible".

Indeed, they did not because, to anyone but Calder, the answer would have been blindingly obvious. Izetbegovic's Bosnian government was appealing to western powers to lift the siege and was in no position to provide official assistance. Our governments, which could and should have lifted the siege, did nothing.

Every Sarajevan I have ever met saw Sontag's visit as a rare, courageous and wholly welcome act of solidarity. They, whose sense of the absurd and tragic in life was sharper than anyone's, applauded the choice of play and admired the production. Only Samuel Beckett's literary estate could be so anally protective of their author as to complain that Sontag and her cast were mounting an "unauthorised" production.

London SW17

Counting chickens

Sir: Ann Stewart's account of the mass killing of her daughter's chickens by a fox (letters, 30 December) is the same tired old argument used by supporters of hunting. Whenever this debate rears its head, you can be assured that someone in a flat cap or Barbour coat will spout the one about the fox killing everything "for the fun of it".

The fact is that chicken enclosures are unnatural environments for a fox, who will normally hunt in open fields, picking off an opportunity. When faced with a small space packed with abundant food, the fox's natural behaviour is to slaughter everything, take what it needs, and return repeatedly to remove the other corpses for larder storage.

The obvious answer to anyone (including us "uninformed" townsfolk) would be to ensure that vulnerable livestock is kept safe and secure in well-maintained enclosures that predators cannot burrow through.

Port Talbot

Hackney Marshes

Sir, How can the Olympic bid leaders even consider ploughing up the Hackney Marshes for an Olympic coach park (report, 1 January)?

This training ground for the young and, so often, the most deprived players has been the starting point for so many. It also provides a unique Sunday morning social gathering, with families taking part, either playing or on the sidelines encouraging. To unthinkingly remove all that contradicts what the Olympics is about. The Games offer everyone a chance to shine, so to deprive a large community of a starting point in learning the joys of a sport and becoming a team player is absurd.

Think again London; there are alternatives.


Priced out

Sir: Thank you to Roger Clifton (letter, 30 December) for pointing out that some relief in the obscenely high level of house prices is not bad news for everyone. My daughter who, perhaps unwisely, sold her small terraced house before she went abroad to work three years ago, has returned. Were it to be on the market, she could not possibly afford to buy back her old house.

Osmington, Dorset

Examining Einstein

Sir: Einstein's "flunked" exam for entrance to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (report, 30 December) should be seen in the context of his applying at an age some two years younger than normal, and his having spent a year out of the school system living with his parents in Italy. He failed to achieve the required standard in language, history and art exams, but his marks were so exceptional in science and maths that the principal of the institute encouraged him to take tuition for the failed subjects, which he duly passed the following year.

London W6

Medical blessings

Sir: The Rattigans (letter, 30 December) are indeed fortunate not to require any antibiotics, steroids or antibacterials. Last year we celebrated the 18th birthday of our daughter, a chronic asthmatic who has had over 50 hospital admissions during her short life. She is alive because of Ventolin and steroids, for which we are extremely grateful. Our experience is that people who are ill use coventional medicine, and people who aren't use alternative medicine.

Shorwell, Isle of Wight

Bashing burglars

Sir: The correspondence on sports equipment as defensive weapons could provoke nostalgia for that near-extinct piece of gymnasium equipment, the Indian club. My mother had one under her bed for many years. Since there was only one, it cannot have been intended for the synchronised exercises of her girls' gym club days.

London SW14