A man recently released from prison on terrorism charges attended a conference on criminal legal reform in London and, wearing a fake explosive vest, stabbed fellow attendees, killing two people, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones. Merritt was a course coordinator for Learning Together, an education program bringing students from outside prison walls inside them to learn alongside people who are incarcerated. Jones was a graduate of Cambridge University.
The suspect, Usman Khan, was restrained by conference attendees and then shot and killed by police on London Bridge. Khan had been freed on parole 11 months previously after serving less than half of his 16-year sentence for trying to blow up the London Stock Exchange.
Following the attack, British politicians were quick to manipulate the event to their own ends. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “I think it is ridiculous, I think it is repulsive, that individuals as dangerous as this man should be allowed out after serving only eight years, and that’s why we are going to change the law.” Johnson pledged to make his British Conservative Party into the party of “law and order” by extending prison sentences, imposing a mandatory fulfillment of the entire length of sentences, increasing prison capacity to hold an additional 10,000 prisoners by 2020, expanding police stops and searches, and expanding draconian laws against immigrants, among other things.
Johnson’s opponent in this week’s British general election, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, implied Khan’s release from prison is a result of funding cuts and staffing shortfalls, and the response should be more funding for prisons. “You can’t keep people safe on the cheap,” Corbyn said.
However, David Merritt, Jack’s father, said his son would “not wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily.”
According to his lawyer, Khan had repeatedly asked for help to be de-radicalized while he was in prison, but no help was available or offered. Indeed, according to The Independent, a former top prosecutor says Prime Minister Johnson claimed there was “no money” to put toward de-radicalization programs in prisons.
As someone who has worked in rehabilitative prison programs for more than 15 years, the aftermath of this horrific crime is an almost perfect encapsulation of the misconstrued narrative of criminal legal reform.
Unfortunately, because of the imminent U.K. election, the response has been amped up and warped to benefit political ambitions. The winds of political expediency sweep up rationality and evidence along with emotions. The poignant words of Jack Merritt’s father, trying to keep his son’s work alive, are heartbreaking to those of us who understand how easy it is to derail years of narrative change and proof of lives transformed with just a few precisely chosen words intended to stoke fear and anger in order to gain votes.
Merritt is not alone; according to a national U.S. report, most survivors want the criminal legal system to focus more on rehabilitation than punishment by a two to one margin. Sixty-one percent of survivors of crime prefer shorter sentences and more spending on prevention.
Society tries to justify mass incarceration by attempting to convince us that everyone who is incarcerated is a potential Charles Manson or Ted Bundy. At best, we make inaccurate divisions between “violent offenders” and “nonviolent offenders,” assuring ourselves that the nonviolent variety are safer and recidivate less, when the truth is people who commit murder reoffend between 1 to 11 percent of the time, against almost 80 percent of all people returning to prison.
If we were really concerned about transforming lives instead of punishing people, we would have to look at the narratives that we have neatly stuffed away and contend with the fact that reality is much more uncomfortable. We might even have to face the fact that when we talk about people who end up in prison, we are talking about communities of color and poverty that are underinvested in and mass-policed — people who are generationally targeted for incarceration.
In the midst of the rancor and the politically fueled calls for longer, harsher sentences, two men risked their lives to stop Khan — James Ford and Marc Conway. These heroic efforts to disarm and disable Khan were performed by two people, one who was recently released from prison, and the other who is completing his sentence in an open prison. This fact throws the story into a grey area that many people would rather not look at. Criminal legal stories tend to be presented as black and white — victim/perpetrator, hero/villain — but the reality is shades of grey. Most people who are incarcerated are both survivor and perpetrator, often before they were convicted, but also while they are serving their prison term.
The UK Prison Reform Trust, a leading think tank and policy initiator issued this statement after the attack: “It is right that there should be a profound questioning of how the terrible events at London Bridge came about. But that will take time and detailed, dispassionate enquiry. All our experience shows us that policy decisions taken in the immediate aftermath of shocking events are likely to lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences. In criminal justice, those damaging consequences have sometimes lasted for many years, and done incalculable harm.”
We are still experiencing the ramifications of the knee-jerk politicizing of serious societal issues in the U.S. in the 1980s. Mass incarceration was posed as an answer to the growing drug epidemic without a real understanding or accountability of what fueled the problem and who would be most impacted by the legislation. The unwillingness to address the uncomfortable grey areas of criminalization and the blatant use of these tragedies to further political ambition threatens to reverse progress and deepen the impact on communities targeted for incarceration.
As civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson says, “We must get ‘proximate’ to suffering and understand the nuanced experiences of those who suffer from and experience inequality.” Resisting the fear-stoking of the current political climate and being willing to venture into dialogue about the uncomfortable grey areas together is the only way we will have a safer, more just society.