A group of criminologists, penal reformers and ex-offenders have expressed “dismay” at Cambridge University’s decision to scrap a programme that taught prisoners alongside students after the deadly attack at Fishmongers’ Hall at one of its events.
They include some of the people who survived the attack by terrorist Usman Khan when he stabbed to death Jack Merritt, 25, and Saskia Jones, 23, while wearing a fake suicide vest. The November 2019 killings occurred at an event to mark the fifth anniversary of the prisoner education scheme Learning Together.
Last week, the Guardian revealed that the university had decided to halt the programme following criticism by a coroner over its approach to safety. Now, an open letter to the university’s vice-chancellor, signed by more than 70 people, derides the move as a “betrayal” of the aims of Learning Together.
It said: “This seeming retreat into its comfort zone … strikes us as a retrograde step, particularly for an institution putatively committed to ‘widening access’.”
Among the signatories are John Crilly and Marc Conway, two former prisoners and Learning Together alumni who were at the Fishmongers’ Hall event and forced Khan on to nearby London Bridge where he was shot dead by police. At an inquest into the killings, Crilly and Conway were praised for their bravery.
In a prevention of future deaths report, Judge Mark Lucraft QC said there were collective failures by the security services, police and probation officers to prevent the attack. But he was also critical of Learning Together’s lax attitude to security when it invited Khan to the event.
The inquest had heard that Learning Together regarded Khan as a “poster boy” for the programme, and had appeared in one of its promotional videos after taking part in several of its courses while at Whitemoor high security prison.
The inquest jury said the authorities had a “blind spot to Khan’s unique risks due to his ‘poster boy’ image and lack of psychological assessment post released from prison”.
Last week, Cambridge University said there would be “clear stop” to Learning Together after an internal review.
Conway urged the university to reconsider. Speaking to Sky News on Sunday, he said: “This [the letter] is from people from all walks of life: professors, doctors, people that work in criminal justice system. We just don’t understand the rationale for the decision.”
“It goes against the advice that the university itself commissioned which said Learning Together could feasibly be delivered in a way that minimises and appropriately manages its risk.”
Conway added: “The Learning Together programme dramatically changed my life for the better. We we have real concern that people will miss out and not get the opportunity of that and could go on to reoffend.”
Last week, Jack’s father, Dave Merritt, told the Guardian that he was saddened that programme was coming to an end, but said: “The course leaders were idealistic, ambitious for the programme and naive about the risks that dangerous, high-risk, category A, Terrorist Act offenders such as Khan pose.”
He added: “All the agencies in managing Khan – prison, probation, police, MI5 – regarded his involvement with Learning Together as a ‘protective factor’, in the absence of any evidence to support this. In the words of our barrister, Nick Armstrong of Matrix Chambers, it was if they were intoxicated by the ‘fairy dust Learning Together sprinkled over them’.”
Cambridge University referred to its statement from last week that acknowledged that Learning Together “helped change many lives for the better” but confirmed it would be scrapped.