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Letters: our prisons are a national disgrace

·5 min read

Eva Wiseman is rightly impassioned by our inability as a country to summon the will to reform our creaking prison system (“Prison reform is slow, but could the will to change be growing?”, Magazine). She draws our attention to many of the most telling areas of failure which should inspire appetite for change. Are we shamed by a recidivism rate of 65%? Do we care that we lock up more women and children than any other European country? The political attitude to prison seems hardly to have developed since Victorian times, while public perceptions are starting to appear more progressive.

Sadly, this government, like its predecessors, cannot decide whether prison should punish, deter or reform as its top priority, as demonstrated by the incompatible appointments of Rory Stuart and Chris Grayling as ministers with responsibility for prisons, the first a reformer, the latter with a reactionary agenda. The home secretary should pick up Ms Wiseman’s gauntlet and act on the mountain of evidence confronting her that her prison system is a national disgrace.
Christopher Martin

Republicans not racist

Maurice Walsh writes that the republican movement of 1921 “played the race card” to win freedom (Focus). He evidences this by treating Irish republicanism as being represented only by its most reactionary elements. Republicanism was quick to support anti-slavery struggles: Thomas McCabe, Mary Ann McCracken, John Boyle O’Reilly and Terence MacSwiney were all outspoken anti-racists. The execution by the British in 1916 of those committed to socialism and anti-imperialism – Connolly, Pearse, Casement – gave space for more reactionary arguments to come to the fore.

The formation of the Free State was a defeat for republican anti-imperialism. As Sinn Féin politician Liam Mellows put it, the acceptance of partition meant that “we are going into the British Empire now to participate in the Empire’s shame, and the crucifixion of India and the degradation of Egypt. Is that what the Irish people fought for freedom for?” To paint the republican movement of the time as racist is to misrepresent the best of it and cover over the fact that the actual imperialists – the British – used the suppression of the Irish struggle to develop all the tactics they would employ in defence of empire elsewhere, from the development of militia to terrorise the native population (the Black and Tans) to the use of partition itself as a political strategy. In this centenary year, there has been little critical reflection on any of that.
Nick Moss
London NW10

Maurice Walsh describes Erskine Childers as “the former English officer and bestselling spy novelist”. This omits Childers’s most significant occupation – as a clerk in the House of Commons from 1895 to 1914. So far as we know, although several clerks have since followed in Childers’s footsteps by publishing novels, he remains the only clerk to have been executed by firing squad.
Paul Evans, former clerk in the House of Commons
Crickhowell, Powys

The down side of gene-editing

Philip Ball presents an upbeat assessment of Crispr gene-editing therapies (“After the Nobel, what next for Crispr?”, the New Review) but the seeds of darker possibilities are present in his identification of four companies already working to exploit this technology. The political consensus favours a laissez-faire approach to business so these companies, and others, will be left largely free to innovate applications of gene-editing according to market demand.

Unconstrained competition is bound to lead to the erosion of ethical guidelines and to the selling of non-medical uses of Crispr with the potential to be highly socially disruptive, such as the introduction of alterations in cosmetic appearance, cognition, memory and emotional response. Rather than sleepwalking into this future, it would be better if the potential downsides of the commercial exploitation of Crispr were more widely debated.
Jamie Carnie

Preserver of the human race

Nick Cohen captured all the intricacies of the vaccination debate (“It is only a matter of time before we turn on the unvaccinated”, Comment). However, your caption alongside the accompanying cartoon by Gillray omitted its sub-heading, which referred sarcastically to the “wonderful” effects of the smallpox vaccination, while parts of cows were seen to be growing out of the bodies of those who had received the cowpox-based vaccination.

The debate about the efficacy and safety of such a procedure, which we are seeing repeated today, was equally heated at the start of the 19th century. By way of a riposte to Gillray, Cruikshank produced an equally powerful cartoon in 1808 depicting Jenner as a heroic figure, saving the lives of children who would otherwise have been disfigured by smallpox. While Jenner appeals to the doctors who oppose him, one turns and replies: “Curse on these vaccinators….” Meanwhile, an angel places a laurel wreath on the head of Jenner with the words: “The preserver of the human race.”
Ian Ferguson
Pickering, North Yorkshire

Portrait of a lady

Your article on Hortense Mancini highlighted her intellectual and literary accomplishments, but you diminished those by using a depiction of her as an allegorical object of male fantasy (“How Charles II’s clever mistress set trends ahead of her time”, News). Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to use the painting after Voet in the National Portrait Gallery, or Kneller’s later portrait from 1693, both of which show Mancini as a woman in her own right?
Mark Liebenrood
London WC1

Regional variations

The government imposition of rent rises for the learned societies of Burlington House couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time (“Under threat: the birthplace of Darwin’s historic theory”, News). Now the move to distribute facilities round the country is growing, several new centres of learning could be set up.

I suggest Leeds for the Geological Society as it is at the heart of the Carboniferous strata; Bolton, the home of Fred Dibnah, for the Society of Antiquaries; and Lyme Regis for the Linnaean Society, where it would sit very well with natural history and the evolution of the dinosaurs.
William Burgess
Guiseley, West Yorkshire