06:03, December 05 274 0 theguardian.com

2019-12-05 06:03:04
The London Bridge attack was an assault on the ideas of hope and rehabilitation

For those of us involved with the Learning Together community, the deaths of our friends and colleagues Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones have been hard to bear. This has been made even harder by our sense that – amid the cynical politicking, against the wishes of Jack’s family – the values that Learning Together stands for are being overlooked.

Friday’s attack was reported as an incident of indiscriminate terrorism. But it was perpetrated at a Learning Together conference. The victims worked for Learning Together. It was an assault on the whole idea of prisoner rehabilitation – an attack on education, and the hope for self-betterment that it inspires. Kneejerk calls to “lock them up and throw away the key” by rightwing newspapers and politicians end up reinforcing one of the aims of Usman Khan’s violence.

Formed in 2014, Learning Together has since grown to involve 600 university and prison students during this year alone. The idea of it is simple: bring university students and prison-based students in a classroom to share experiences and learning. Courses have ranged from criminology, to literary criticism, to philosophy and theology. At the heart of every course is a belief that you can’t learn everything from books, that experience is a form of expertise, and that in sharing and understanding the experiences of all we can find fresh insight.

I was a student in the Law, Justice, and Society course at HM prison Grendon in 2018-2019. From practising lawyers, lecturers, and judges, we learned about how the law works in practice, the role of race and class in law, and how the law can be changed. But as I grapple with Jack and Saskia’s deaths, I have returned to Nobody Cares, a published poetry anthology resulting from a Learning Together course on creative writing held at Whitemoor prison. In it Ricardo, a poet living at Whitemoor, writes of “accepting / that together we learn and that by learning together we will prosper and / overcome”. This captures the project’s spirit.

It would be wrong to make all this sound too sombre. The classes were often hilarious, full of larger-than-life characters giving short shrift to over-academic explanations of “stuff that is obvious”. Once, after struggling to grapple with the complexities of an electric tea urn, I was castigated for my failure to enrol for a degree in basic common sense.

In particular, Learning Together taught me to resist easy binaries of “good” and “bad” people, a division that can be encouraged by the media. People in prisons may have done terrible things – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of bringing good into the world. Behind the stories of my classmates were often tales of neglect and institutional failure, making it impossible not to reflect on the circumstances that had contributed to our radically different lives. The discussions also reminded me that people who aren’t in prison have made mistakes too, sometimes major ones, and often it’s chance or our privilege that have kept those people out of prison and on a different path.

This is not to overlook or minimise my classmates’ crimes or the impact on their victims. It is, however, to suggest a shared responsibility to advocate for a justice system that sees the good in people whom some may wish to cast out as being irredeemably bad.

At the core of Learning Together is a message of mutual interdependence – how, by learning together, we become enmeshed in others’ futures in ways that can drive positive change. The students at Grendon often remarked on how the project had given them a newfound capacity to build and sustain meaningful relationships. It made many of us see ourselves differently. At our end of course celebration, one student shared that: “I never believed that I could have conversations with people from a university. I’ve shown myself and my family that I can.”

At the same event, founders Amy and Ruth spoke about a “politics of love” that underpins the Learning Together project. Rather than romantic love, I take this to mean what James Baldwin describes as a “state of being” that recognises the inherent worth and dignity of all. In a prison context in which people are defined by, and reminded constantly of, the worst things they’ve ever done this is a radical sentiment. It is no coincidence that it was Learning Together alumni who put themselves in danger to confront Khan. They were defending a community in which they were genuinely valued.

It is all too easy to jump to the rhetoric of “tough on crime” in the aftermath of such a tragedy. Boris Johnson has been especially quick to do that. But a more considered approach – an approach that also honours Jack and Saskia – would be to think about how Learning Together’s values could inform the justice system as a whole. This would require not only more funding for rehabilitative programmes (although that is sorely needed), but also a broader commitment to seeing incarcerated people as more than their worst actions.

Longer prison sentences may soothe immediate, understandable feelings of fear and anger, but that’s only temporary. The better way to go would be to recognise Friday’s attack as one targeting hope. And it is hope – that projects like Learning Together engender – that we must do our utmost to preserve.

Jake Thorold is a former prisoner