Paul Little at large

Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: So many wrongs we need to put right

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Jail is not the place for the mentally ill. Photo / File
Jail is not the place for the mentally ill. Photo / File

We start every new year with hope that the previous 12 months' errors will be corrected.

This year we seem to have been left with more than the usual number of reasons to be hopeful.

In the course of the year, I encountered two memorable examples of things that are wrong, that need to be put right and probably won't be.

They were low on the drama scale but they've stayed with me as instances of things that go on all the time, unreported and unaddressed because our systems can't cope.

The first was an afternoon spent in court watching a dreary parade of people for whom hope did not really seem to be an option.

One stood out.

Guilty of a serious assault, he was there to determine whether he would be going back to jail.

There seemed no doubt he would be incarcerated.

His behaviour in the dock was extraordinary.

He grinned and gibbered, made declarations of love across the courtroom to one of his victims - whose appearance to support him indicated she had some problems of her own - laughed loudly when he should have been most serious and failed to have an appropriate reaction at any stage.

He was clearly a danger to himself and other people and there is no argument that for the protection of himself and other people he needed to be in custody.

The judge carefully and clearly explained why he would be going back to jail - something even his parole officer had recommended - and announced the sentence.

As he was led away he exclaimed: "What? So I'm not going home?"

In other words, this man was clearly mentally ill.

Whether the result of chemicals or genes, his connection with reality was slight at best.

There was a time when society would have dealt with him very differently.

Now, following the badly managed dismantling of the mental health system decades ago, it is easier, cheaper and safer to confine people with dangerous mental illnesses in prison.

In a mental hospital they could be kept, supervised and given therapy until they were well, however long that took to happen; forever if it didn't happen.

Now they are left to the care of people who probably don't include trained mental health professional in their skill set.

It is not something that should be happening in a society that professes to have a collective heart - or brain.


The other significant experience took place at the launch of a book I published.

The volume had been produced in China and when it arrived in boxes of 32 copies it came with a small piece of paper slipped between each of the copies. As well as being an apparent waste of paper - and you can make your joke about any book with which I'm associated being a waste of paper here, if you care to - it was an irritant. Every time I handled the books these annoying things got in the way and had to be dealt with.

Many people, some of whom I hadn't met before, helped at this launch.

One was a woman assembling piles of books on a table.

"There are all these pieces of paper ... " she said.

"Aren't they annoying?" I said, rolling my eyes. "I don't know why they're there. You can just chuck them in that box over there with the other rubbish."

She looked at me apologetically.

"Actually, I was wondering if I could save them to use in my classroom."

"Oh, of course," I said, startled to realise that this is what New Zealand had come to in 2013 - a country where the teachers have to scavenge for scraps of paper.

- Herald on Sunday

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