Colchester in my youth not only had the most marvellous garrison in England, several square miles that provided everything a lad on a bike could want, from collecting lost live rounds from the firing range (an imprisonable offence today) to access to the officers' heated pool, but the town also had one of the finest mental hospitals that Victorian piety could produce. The patients staffed a vast steam laundry that processed linen from the nearby medical hospitals and kept the grounds beautifully manicured. The staff had a theatre and time to mount and rehearse Christmas pantos of a quality unrivalled by the town's little rep theatre. I recall Jack and the Beanstalk with Daleks – and what a wonder of light, smoke and thrills for both its youthful audience and the inmates in the auditorium.
The inmates also included several artists of note. For some reason restricted to watercolour and gouache I bought or was given several and only discovered the distinguished nature of their creators in recent years. The inmates weren't dangerous, just odd. Those I met as a lad included a deaf man of about sixty – Bragg – who was completely sane, but had been committed as a child at a time when deafness was reason enough for institutionalising a child. When a man with a barrow of manure was asked by an inmate in the grounds for its purpose, the barrowman replied “It's to put on my strawberries”. “Oh” came the confused response “I usually put sugar on mine”.
Of course the vast green oasis of calm, its sprawling ranges of red-brick buildings and its laundry were all shut down to be converted into a new housing estate. The inmates were moved to seaside bedsits in Clacton and Jaywick and permanently sedated. Many, after a lifetime of institutional care, simply couldn't cope. Much the same happened to much of the garrison. Today, the mentally ill are largely confined to prisons, living riskily amongst violent crims, druggies and Islamists, but at least no longer free to talk randomly to strangers on the bus, thus protecting the general population from oddness.
It hardly needs repeating that the mentally ill are not lepers, that it's not contagious and that each day we ourselves are spared from becoming ill is a benison to be celebrated. But if we are made so uncomfortable by the non-violent mentally ill that we don't want them amongst us, and if it's frequently better for them to be housed and cared for in an institution apart from our daily lives, the very least we can do is not to use criminal prisons for the purpose. Really, this is not good.