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I was supposed to be at the tragic event in London Bridge - but I still think rehabilitation can work

Jack Merritt, 25, Saskia Jones, 23, died following the terrorist attack near to London Bridge on Friday and were both part of the Learning Together team who believed in rehabilitation
Jack Merritt, 25, Saskia Jones, 23, died following the terrorist attack near to London Bridge on Friday and were both part of the Learning Together team who believed in rehabilitation Credit: PA

As the debate over releasing prisoners early intensifies, Peter Stanford - who should have been at Fishmongers' Hall on Friday - explains why rehabilitation may not be simple, but like the young people killed, he believes it essential 

I should have been at the Learning Together event in Fishmongers’ Hall on Friday, but at the last minute couldn’t go. I was looking forward to a celebration of this energetic Cambridge-based organisation that, in just five years, I have seen achieve so much by bringing university students and prison learners together in the pursuit of knowledge.

Instead, I have been left in shock at the deaths of 25-year-old Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, 23, two young members of the Learning Together team, and the trauma of those who survived a murderous attack by someone they had all been trying to help. 

It has been heartbreaking, and hard for all of who know Learning Together to get our heads round how this can have happened. But I strongly believe that this tragedy must not now, as it is threatening to do, cause a reining-in of the commitment to rehabilitation that those who died were working to make real.  

I want this not because I am some liberal softie - as prison reformers are usually stereotyped - but because of the evidence that “throwing away the keys” doesn’t actually make us any safer.

Everything that has been said about Jack Merritt being a “beautiful soul” was true and his commitment to rehabilitation was unmistakeable, as he explained to me when we met at an event in Cambridge. Which is why David, his father, has urged since his murder: “My son would not wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences.” Grief can throw rational thinking into turmoil, but on this point David is clear-headed. Politicians are using his son’s death, he has protested, to promote “vile propaganda”.

Some will recoil at these words. It isn’t what we want to hear straight after such an atrocity – especially when we look at the faces of two young people whose lives have been cruelly taken away. And the hardline stance of those he calls “draconian” plays to a basic human instinct to regard anyone who has committed a crime against society as forever unworthy of a second chance. We build walls round our jails partly to represent a separation between “us” on the outside and “them” on the inside. 

Taking students, current and former, into prisons – including HMP Whitemoor, a Category A, high-security jail in the Fens, where Jack and Saskia’s killer had been held before his release – has been Learning Together’s way of breaking through that wall. 

They recognise that the 86,000 offenders in our jails, including those who have committed the most heinous of crimes, espoused the worst of ideologies and carried out terrorist acts, will one day come out - most “life” sentences meaning a tariff of between 15-30 years. There are just 63 people in our prisons serving “whole life” sentences and who will die inside. So, in the future, if we are to be safer, it makes sense to try and reach out to the vast majority who will be released. It is self-interest.

I learnt that rehabilitation works as a rookie reporter, when I was sent to meet former Labour minister Frank Longford. Like everyone else, I knew him only for his public (ultimately failed) crusade to allow Myra Hindley to be paroled and for which the tabloids had labelled him “Lord Wrongford”. 

But listening to him prompted me to think again. He had met thousands of those behind bars, most without any of the publicity that surrounded Hindley. He saw them as individuals, not as collective “offenders”, and gave them practical support in changing their lives – including not reoffending.

The experience had made him sure of one thing: the moment we write off the prospect of anyone being reformed, we are not only damning them, but ourselves. For this belief, he was called a fool and a gullible softie. 

Understandably, it is a challenge too far for some because, at its simplest, rehabilitation can mean preparing those who have taken the lives of others, for a better life of their own. The cause is not always straightforward, not least because there is a risk for those who get involved with it. And for some of those they seek to help, for example because of mental health issues, successful rehabilitation can prove impossible. But does that mean we shouldn’t try? I would argue that we will be in more danger if we don’t.

London Bridge terrorist Usman Khan was on the Learning Together course Credit: Learning Together 

That is what Learning Together stands for, along with other prison reform organisations including the Longford Trust, an educational charity with which I have been involved for nearly 20 years. And that is why I should have been in Fishmongers’ Hall on Friday, along with Jack, Saskia and some of the 300 or so young men and women we have supported through university and into careers. Some 85 per cent of these young prisoners graduate, get jobs as accountants, engineers, academics, IT programmers, and barristers, and don’t trouble the criminal justice system again.  

Less than 4 per cent return to prison – set that against a national reoffending rate of around 50 per cent. In other words, “rehabilitation works” is not just a theory, it’s a reality I see every day.

If statistics don’t convince you, then the pictures of some of those ex-prisoners attending last week’s event - those who owe everything to Learning Together and risked their lives to stop the man who had already killed Jack and Saskia - should give you pause for thought. In our jails, there are many more of them than of him. 

The challenge that confronts us, then, is to how to manage the risk that a tiny minority of ex-prisoners can pose. Since Friday, there has been much discussion of the culpability of our parole and probation services. Speculation about the London Bridge killer, Usman Khan, is foolish at this moment, given we don’t know all the facts. How successful deradicalisation can be, is a yet more complex and unresolved question. 

But what I can tell you, from my experience, is that the underfunded and overstretched National Probation Service works hard to manage those who have served part of a long sentence, once they return to the community. 

They monitor their movements though electronic tags, enforce parole conditions around internet access, and deliberate long and hard before allowing them to travel. Among those I work with, there are many who have served much shorter sentences for lesser offences than Khan, and who are routinely refused permission to make the journey to our events.  

Probation officers are risk-averse, not just because they know their jobs could be on the line, but also because, if they get it wrong, public safety will be in danger. The huge increase in those recalled to prison for breaching their parole conditions in recent years – often for trivial infringements – is testament to that. 

As well as the case for rehabilitation, what has also been largely missing from the debate following Friday’s appalling events has been any talk of mental health. Yet we know, from the most recent Ministry of Justice figures, that 25 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men in prison report symptoms indicative of psychosis. Other surveys put the number much higher.

The link between mental health and prison is well-established, as is the targeting of the mentally ill by online extremists. Self-inflicted deaths are six times more likely in jail, while self-harm rates among prisoners are at record levels. How are those individuals going to manage when they get out? 

If we really want the tragic deaths of these two courageous young people, Jack and Saskia, to bring about change that makes us all safer, here’s a thought: why not refine the current manifesto pledges to spend more on criminal justice, so that they include building more secure mental facilities? That would give rehabilitation a real chance.