I witnessed the attack at London Bridge last Friday. Like the victims of the attack I’m a prison campaigner (Jack Merritt, one of the deceased, followed my work on social media). Like the assailant, I’m an ex-prisoner and I was failed by prison, as most of us are.
There’s so much more than meets the eye when it comes to this case so let me explain what I saw and break down the political narratives that have ensued.
So… at 1.55pm last Friday, a metallically crisp winter day, I passed the north side of London Bridge. A big lump of a policeman frantically orders me through a construction site doorway, shouting: ‘BOMB THREAT – MOOOOVVVEE!!!’.
I stood watching the situation unfurl from a second floor window with a crew of bewildered builders in hi-viz. Armed police pinged past Monument, screeched to a halt, clambered over pre-existing anti-terrorism barricades in place from the previous attack in 2017, moved to a scrum of people holding down a man an: DOOF-DOOF-DOOF…the sound of silenced machine gun shots.
Suits, ties and pencil skirt pandemonium. Office workers spread from the area like confetti, screaming and streaming as fast as stilettos and loafers allow. Meanwhile the builders irreverently suggested we get the kettle on – ‘we might be here a while!’.
A trillion more police turned up; stuffed in vans, cars and 4x4s, riding horses, bikes and mopeds, and two minutes later we were ordered to evacuate.
Beyond the cordon I sat down in a doorway next to a group of city boys who began to opine ‘we need to burn them on a pyre!’ – I stood up and asked: ‘who do you mean, “them”?’.
I sat back down, thinking to myself, here we go, it’s happening again. Four generic responses: frontline services run towards the disaster, builders take it in their stride, office workers run in panic, posh boys sit safely on the sidelines getting warmed up for political football.
In both physical and philosophical terms, minutes after the event and with no details, we’re already rushing towards polarisation.
These basic narratives rapidly became a lot more complex as more info was imparted. A lot to unpack, let’s have a go…
The assailant is now known to be Usman Khan, locked up as part of a Jihadi plot in 2012. Immediately news outlets asked the simple-yet-loaded question: WHY WAS HE RELEASED?! Well, here’s why: parole boards don’t refer to a crystal ball, they refer to casefiles telling them whether the prisoner remains a substantive risk.
Khan had (according to reports) been a model prisoner. Not only that, but he’d actively attempted to leave his extremism behind, seeking to become, as stated in a letter penned from his prison cell, ‘a good British citizen’. However, his requests for help had fallen on overstretched ears – it’s a well established pattern behind bars – prisoners aren’t helped even when they’re a captive audience… drug users desperate to get clean cant access treatment courses; illiterate prisoners keen to learn basic literacy skills rely on charities with wavering funding; underclass prisoners who’ve made a misguided attempt at escaping poverty are released poorer than ever; those suffering from trauma and mental illness (veterans and victims of child abuse alike) are locked up 23/7.
That this pattern also applies to terrorism suspects beggars belief, yet it’s fully believable if you’ve seen the state of our prison system.
Prison doesn’t disappear social problems, it temporarily disappears people to a place that magnifies detriments. If you’re vulnerable you’ll be victimised; if you’re hard as nails then that concrete environment will further cement you; and if you’re an ideological extremist against the wider western system, then the dysfunctional extreme of it most likely wont do much to convince you to participate.
Beyond prison I assume Khan’s experience of probation was similar to mine and everyone else I’ve known who’s been through the service. It’s been stripped of resources, stripped further, and then privatised, which was, and continues to be, an unmitigated disaster. Serious crimes committed on parole increased by 50% since privatisation and it’s not hard to see why: they usher you in, ask very basic questions, tick a box, kick you out the door.
A functional probation service costs time and money and these days the service has neither. Ideological offenders need a lot of both. For every penny pinched, the human toll is the price we end up paying. The affects can generally be swept under the carpet, left in doorways, under bridges, maligned as ne’er do wells, locked up again and again; the character of every town centre is affected by these cuts, this particular example just happens to be murderous and newsworthy.
Historically, and presently, there’s no way for the Tories to frame the above in their favour. They will need to use lies and media manipulation.
Within hours Boris had begun that process. Despite the father of the first named victim, Jack Merritt, saying his son would not want his death to be used to argue for further imprisonment, Boris was already using it to argue to incarcerate people for longer and longer.
The Prime Minister and his death penalty-supporting cabinet member Priti Patel arrived at the scene then proceeded to wheel out trite soundbites
1) ‘Dangerous criminals’ need ‘longer sentences’. Listen: in a dysfunctional system that only serves to magnify people’s detriments and cause further harm, it does not matter if you lock someone up for ten years or forty. He called for a minimum 14 year sentence for terrorism… long prison sentences are no deterrent for your average crime (I can attest to that)… and I suspect they’re the least of your worries when, like Khan, you’re willing to die for your ideology.
They then blamed the current Labour government for a New Labour David Blunkett policy from 2008 of automatic release for people half way through their sentence – something that I was subject to. Without this we’d see even higher rates of imprisonment and bear in mind we already have the highest imprisonment per capita rate in Western Europe.
They’re just using this to continue their draconian societal vision: no investment in our communities, just lock us up when we fail. Build American-style mega jails at exponentially massive cost to the tax payer, then use the tabloids to paper over the blatant failures, and blame the victims.
Stating the obvious, those with murderous instinct are psychopathic. What’s also obvious, but often overlooked, is that politicians and their media goons, who form and reinforce systems with such lack of understanding of basic human behaviours, systems that reliably produce further harm, are also displaying psychopathy.
Systematic psychopathy – go get a cup of tea and have a little think about that one.
2) ‘British values’ and ‘we won’t be cowed’. Boris trying to sound like Churchill is like Cacophonix trying to sound like Celine Dion. Given that he’s desperate for American-style dysfunctional mass-incarceration he should at least leave British identity out of it. Americanisation dressed in a Union Jack; his justice vision is commensurate with his Brexit plans.
3) ‘It’s what the public will want to see’ was the only shred of truth. He’s saying as it is – stating that his populist policy craft isn’t for the reduction of offending rates, it isn’t for the taxpayer, it’s not heeding facts – it’s exclusively shaped for reactionary tabloid editors, and there you have it.
On that note, it’s worth mentioning The Sun headline: ‘LONDON BRIDGE HERO IS CONVICTED MURDERER’. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it and the duality of ‘people can do bad things then do good things’ sent the low-IQ Twittersphere of bored blokes into moral freefall. On a surface level it’s embarrassing but on a deeper level it reveals a hierarchy of ill-informed judgements with more than a hint of racism.
The basic brigade were like ‘Murderer defeats terrorist?!’ like a fox had just defeated a rat. ‘SCUM’ to ‘HERO’ in 10 secs flat then ‘HE’S NOT A HERO’ 20 secs later. ‘He should never be released from prison – OH – what – the hero was on day release from prison……?’.
But beyond the destruction derby of moral mudslingmanship, the human cost is actual.
It’s deeply sad that Usman Khan was sucked back into extremism. It’s sadder still that his victims lost their lives and are now being used by Conservatives as collateral for exactly what they stood against (Jack’s masters thesis was entitled A Critical Analysis of the Over-Representation of BAME Males aged 18-21 in the British Prison System – do you think he’d stand for a shred of Boris’ ideology?).
It’s exponentially sadder that this poisonous but digestible narrative of prison-solves-social-issues will be further pushed by a millionaire owned media at the detriment of virtually everyone except themselves.
The evident complexity deeply favours a metered discussion. but has and will be used to bolster mistruths and misnomers. As I already said: there is no other way this issue can sit in Conservative favour. But, as per usual, newspapers will let Conservatives escape justice, then label those who argue from a rational standpoint as UNPATRIOTIC CISSIES.
Carl Cattermole is an ex-prisoner and activist, who writes about his experiences of Britain’s prison system. His book Prison: A Survival Guide is out now
An earlier version of this text originally appeared on Carl’s instagram account.
Photo credit: Wiki commons