• Mike

An Authentic Voice

This past week I heard one deeply authentic voice, refreshing amid all the election hubbub . It belonged to David Merritt. He was speaking hours after his son, Jack, had been stabbed to death in Fishmongers’ Hall near London Bridge. Jack and his colleague, Saskia Jones, were both killed in the attack which began in an event focusing on prisoner rehabilitation and victim support. The painful irony is that they both died at the hand of the very sort of person they were trying to help.

‘Jack would be livid his death has been used to further an agenda of hate,’ his father wrote. Merritt said that his son would absolutely not have wanted his death to lead to talk about lengthening sentences and subjecting prisoners to tougher regimes. Jack believed in more redemptive ways of dealing with offenders.

In spite of this plea, the Prime Minister was very quick to pronounce on the day’s events. After a very few words of condolence, Mr Johnson turned to a cynical and opportunistic piece of electioneering. He offered a ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’ response. It was a deeply insensitive interview. And The Daily Mail was quick to move into ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ mode.

Remarkably enough David Merritt spoke without any trace of bitterness about his son’s murder. He knew his son’s passions about the prison system. He knew how complex the whole matter is particularly when violence, religious ideology and unstable personality come together.

It made me realize how little I think about life in prison or the whole justice system. I have been to a number of prisons as a teacher or as a visitor at the invitation of an official. I have clear memories of those visits even though they were some years ago. The endless security doors. The haunted faces. The lingering threat. The lack of light. I do wonder occasionally whether some of those offenders I met are still there.

Prison reform is a very long way down the list of the priorities of any political party. And I confess I do not think about the matter because I am not obliged to. No-one of my acquaintance is ‘inside’. There is no prison nearby. My attitudes may not be so far away from those of The Daily Mail as I would like to think.

I admire the Merritt family because they obviously do care about it. And, by a bizarre turn of events, it has cost them dearly. This tragedy can help us to recognise that there are no simple solutions to such complex social problems. They require open exchange of opinions, endless patience, a degree of experimentation with alternative approaches to problems, and some re-ordering of economic priorities. All of them require dedicated hard work and patience.

In a matter of days, the London Bridge tragedy has dropped off the news agenda. Its effects will be with both families forever. Surely, it will be their fondest hope that some changes in attitudes toward penal reform will eventually emerge from their great loss.

For all of us, David Merritt’s words about his son can prove a valuable exhortation: ‘Borrow his intelligence, share his drive, feel his passion, burn with his anger, and extinguish hatred with his kindness. Never give up his fight.’

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