The upcoming inquest to be held in early 2021 into the events at Fishmonger’s Hall and London Bridge, which saw Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones murdered by Usman Khan on the 29th November 2019, will have to find a way of making sense of multiple, and at times competing narratives, which resulted in three people losing their lives as a consequence of attending ‘The Learning Together Anniversary and Alumni Event’.
Learning Together is a prison-based, eight-week educational initiative supported by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, which started in 2015 at the pioneering HMP Grendon – the only prison in the whole of Europe to work as a series of therapeutic communities.
Learning Together brings together prisoners and those studying Criminology at Cambridge to study alongside each other “in inclusive and transforming learning communities” – an approach that their website describes as “being, belonging, becoming”.
At the inquest there will rightly be an understandable focus on the tragedies of Jack and Saskia’s deaths – the former employed by Cambridge University to work full-time for Learning Together and the latter a graduate in Criminology – and a tendency to responsibilise Khan, a convicted terrorist, for their murders.
However, perhaps the inquest should also look more broadly at Learning Together and how it came to first graft itself onto the work of HMP Grendon and then from there precipitously scale up its activities from one unique prison to other mainstream and non-therapeutic jails – including the high security HMP Whitemoor, which is where Khan encountered Learning Together – without any rigorous evaluation of what might be encouraging these so-called “inclusive and transforming learning communities”, even if we could actually discern what this might mean.
Learning Together as an initiative always had about it the whiff of the evangelical and the proselytising; of middle-class idealism and “do-goodism” which was divorced from all reality – a “do- goodism” that seems to have been replicated in this instance within the higher echelons of HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS).
I say this as someone who encountered a number of Learning Together graduates at HMP Grendon, where I am the Chair of the Friends of Grendon, the small charity that supports the prison.
In the wake of the terrible events of the November 29, I found myself having to explain the work of Grendon in various news outlets, given that Khan was challenged and then overcome by three ex-Grendon prisoners (whom I am choosing not to name) who were attending the event, and the failure of anyone from Learning Together, or Cambridge University, being prepared to say anything to the press.
Indeed, I telephoned the university’s press office myself and was encouraged by them to speak, as I was advised that no-one was prepared to say anything at all to the media beyond the issue of a press statement.
In that respect they followed a similar line to the Ministry of Justice and HMPPS who were also conspicuous by their absence and who of course also have well-established connections to Cambridge through the Institute of Criminology.
Silence seems to have become the preferred approach when something goes disastrously wrong and so I simply don’t know what risk assessments were done by HMPPS before it allowed Learning Together into HMP Whitemoor and elsewhere. In one sense I can understand their reluctance.
Some sections of the media have a Manichean tendency to see everything as “good” or “bad” and therefore failed to acknowledge the heroic activities of the three offenders who did much to overpower Khan, instead concentrating their reporting on the crimes that they had committed many years previously.
However by keeping their heads low, those responsible for Learning Together and HMPPS also failed to contribute to a better and more nuanced understanding of what had taken place and frankly simply seemed to me, from what I was told by insiders, rather shocked by what had happened.
As someone involved in penal reform for all of my working life, I know that for successful prisoner rehabilitation to take place you need some hard headed realism and, if that is missing, then the wheels can come off very quickly and in dramatic fashion.
What worked in Learning Together was the therapeutic community at HMP Grendon and not the educational programme, or even the approach of Learning Together. Scaling it up beyond Grendon was at best optimistic and to believe that it might be as successful in the high security estate simply absurd.
Why did the organisers and HMPPS think that it would be successful there, and why move beyond learning Criminology together and include Literary Criticism and Philosophy and Theology – which is what Khan had been studying?
On its website, Learning Together explains that its “medium term goal” is “to focus our work on prisons that are more local to Cambridge (particularly HMPs Whitemoor and Bedford). This will help to reduce the time and cost of transporting students to the prison”.
In other words, the rationale for moving into HMP Whitemoor appears to have been cost, rather than any rigorous reflection either by them or HMPPS on what had been successful about how the programme had been run in HMP Grendon, or any apparent evaluation of the risks that might be encountered when it moved into other subject areas and in other prisons.
Penal reform is not easy and there is no silver bullet that can work in every prison setting; true offender rehabilitation takes time – not an eight week course, but years of therapy to overcome a lifetime of abuse, neglect and offending.
Given the criminological focus of Learning Together at HMP Grendon, it’s perhaps important to remember that criminologists debate endlessly one of the core questions of our discipline – are we born or made; do we offend because it is in our nature, or a consequence of the way that we have been nurtured? The best answer is to acknowledge that it is always a messy combination of the two.
So the well-intentioned but short-sighted hubris of Learning Together, seemingly endorsed by HMPPS must be seen as a major contributing factor to the tragedy of November 29, no matter the personal responsibility of Khan.
I also wrote to the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University saying as much and offering any further help that I might be able to give in the aftermath of the events on London Bridge.
Of course, he never bothered to reply to my email, or even acknowledge that it had been sent.
Professor Emeritus David Wilson is Chair of The Friends of HMP Grendon