Redemption Arc

by Maria on November 30, 2019

In June last year I gave a talk at a prize launch in Cambridge. Afterwards, I talked to a young man called Jack Merritt. Clever, energetic, and idealistic in the best possible sense, he said he was involved in some kind of criminal justice project and would like to talk more about it. I didn’t quite catch what it was about but handed over my card. A week later, an invitation arrived to speak at an event he was running in the autumn. The topic was to be something about technology and justice. Jack mentioned a piece I’d written about the Internet of Things and wondered if I could do something similar, but for his audience, a mix of current and recently released prisoners taking part in an education scheme run by Cambridge University. The project was called Learning Together. It gets university students and prisoners to study criminology together, and it’s based on reciprocity and respect.

I’ve always believed in the principle of rehabilitation, of course. Sorrow, regret, forgiveness, redemption; if we don’t practice these things individually we can’t live collectively in safety and in hope. Looking at the website, it was just the sort of project we need to have and should hope people are there to run. But I had misgivings about my own moral position. Someone I love deeply had, not long before, been the victim of a serious criminal offence. The offender was now behind bars.

Some things cannot and must not be forgiven. They don’t ever go away. Trauma is outside of time. It is always now and it has always just happened, even as we learn to build more of ourselves around it to make it smaller. There is no tidy sequential way to process, resolve and forgive. It can never have not happened. We can never leave it behind. But nor can we live inside it daily and survive. I don’t know a way to wish wholeness to those who have done such wrongs and still be a person who willingly carries some of the pain of the person I love who was hurt. I carry that pain out of love and out of my own need, because it is what is given to me to do. I don’t have the right to forgive trespasses against others and nor do I want to.

And yet we cannot throw people away.

I had liked the way Jack described his project as we chatted over oily and surprisingly tasty finger-food. He seemed both charged with serious purpose and also light with, I suppose, a generalised kind of joy? Well, he was young, I thought. But also, he seemed to have found a way of being very much himself and not a typical Cambridge post-grad, of existing quite comfortably in that environment – neither conceding to it nor rubbing against it. So I went.

I got to the venue, St John’s College in Cambridge, a bit early, for once in my life. There were mounted displays of prisoners’ work – mostly letters, I think, and some drawings. I wandered around with a cup of tea and a sandwich. There’s a lot of finger-food in my life. Microphones, introductions and finger-food. It’s a slightly lonely thing, going to different places to give talks and speeches. I’m kind of central to the event but I don’t usually know many people at it, so I’m also surplus to social requirements. It was a relief when Jack and his colleague Gareth bounced up and took me in hand. They were brimming. The morning of their all-day event had gone well. Everyone was there who could be there – students, success stories, teachers and organisers – and the video link-up with the prisons was working well. We went upstairs to another wood-panelled, high-ceilinged room, built for theology lectures. The session I was to be part of began, and I realised I’d stumbled onto something special.

Learning Together had been set up a couple of years before by two lecturers, Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong. They were both there, and so was the person who spoke before me, an ex-prisoner, who talked about what he had learned and how his life was going, how he was trying to be a good father to his daughter. The atmosphere was at once warm and serious. You know how organisations are sometimes so coloured by the temperaments of those who have created them? I so often see institutions warped by, for want of a better term, the original sin of their founders’ intents, that it was almost shocking to suddenly be in the presence of a good idea, executed well, for the best of reasons, and with and in – and there is no other way to say this – love.

I would not describe the love I was briefly part of that day as a steely love, though that’s the way the metaphor leans; an iron hand in a velvet glove, those thoughtful and energetic women insisting on seeing more in the offenders than the offenders thought themselves capable of. No, this was more a mahogany kind of love; tough but with just a little give, weathered and crafted by artisans who know their stuff and polished by daily human touch, knotted by loss of limb, beautiful and practical and under-valued as ‘brown furniture’ tends to be. A good portion of the audience was on day-release from prison, and Amy, Ruth, Jack and Gareth seemed to know everyone by name, their stories and their progress, too. Everyone was held in mind. One person’s graduation felt like the shared achievement of everyone there.

Soon it was my turn. Jack did the introductions with that same lightness of touch and seriousness of intent that seemed to characterise him.

My talk was about algorithmic justice, if that’s not an oxymoron. It whipped through some well-worn points about bias in data collection, analysis and decision-making. I also touched on the literature about parole boards and decision-fatigue – how decisions to release prisoners track closely to the time of day and how long people have been sitting – as a motivator to replace them with more consistent machines. The heart of the talk was not the debate on human versus algorithmic decision-making, but the weight of the exchange that happens between the person who has been convicted of a crime and the judge who sentences them for it.

I’ve lost the notes. I must have spoken from points scribbled down on the train. But the conclusion went something like; judges are fallible. Their biases and flaws can be horrifying, but there is a moment when they look at the convicted criminal and that person can look back, and I believe there is a mammalian sort of equality in that moment. There is a seeing and being seen that affords a necessary respect. It’s not a reciprocity but it is a shared something. The judge and the offender briefly share the same space and same central concern, the same poor quality of light, the same under-heated, dilapidated court house. Judges are flawed. That’s kind of the point. Judges judge us. And we judge them, too.

I’m not sure how much of it landed with the prisoners. I imagine that in the moment of being sentenced, you are just trying to hold it together, and if you think about the judge at all, it’s not to reflect in watered down psychoanalytic terms on the importance of being truly seen. Those I spoke to afterwards seemed happy enough, though, and the teachers and organisers warmed strongly to the theme. After all, the reason we were all there was a programme that reaches for small but significant equalities by placing students and prisoners on the same level, that of people simply trying to learn.

I was glad to be there, and it was hard to be there. I talked to a couple of the guys. Just as you don’t ask soldiers if they’ve ever killed anyone, you don’t ask prisoners what they’ve done. But while before, I’d have bumped along, relating to those men in a purely ‘in the moment’ way, almost prideful in my disinterest, now I felt the need to hold the truth of serious wrongs in my mind while we spoke. I remember thinking, as I listened to a man who’d served a long sentence, in speaking to you warmly and quite obviously wishing you well, am I betraying the people you hurt? I carry a pain like theirs with me. I carry someone else’s pain and I do not want to put it down. I hold it close to my chest, I hug it tight. If I had to picture the pain I would say it was a backpack worn on my front, not my back. I fold my arms in front of it and I want you to know it is there. When someone dies, our love for them is transmuted to grief. When someone is badly hurt, some of our love for them turns into pain. I’d as much let that pain go as I’d let go of their hand if they reached for mine in the night.

On the train home I thought about people like Jack who are young but the very opposite of naïve. How forgiveness and recovery are not located in the same feelings or even the same people, and yet they can still work. How each needs to know the other exists. How this helps, yes, but how nothing will ever be enough.

Jack Merritt died yesterday. He was killed in the attack on London Bridge, at a prisoner rehabilitation event nearby. The attacker was apparently tagged but otherwise at liberty, and had previously requested de-radicalisation treatment but not received it. Jack’s father, correctly predicting the political use to which this attack would be put, said today;

“My son, Jack, who was killed in this attack, would not wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily. R.I.P. Jack: you were a beautiful spirit who always took the side of the underdog.

[…] Cambridge lost a proud son and a champion for underdogs everywhere, but especially those dealt a losing hand by life, who ended up in the prison system.”

I can only imagine the unbearable pain of Jack’s family. He was exceptional, delightful, committed and a lot of fun. Jack and his colleagues at Learning Together did hard, necessary, clear-eyed and loving work, work that is so much harder than the base, punitive cant the Prime Minister dared to utter on London Bridge today.

We go on.

I believe we can help people who have done terrible things to see themselves by seeing them, really seeing them. We can suggest how they might renew themselves by finding even the smallest, pea-sized amount of love we have, and offering it with an open hand. I believe all this and when Jack invited me, I found I could be near it and act in a small way to help it to flourish, but I could not do it myself. I am grateful to Jack and to everyone who does this hard work, and I am more sorry than I can say that his work is done.



Gareth Wilson 11.30.19 at 8:06 pm

“The attacker was apparently tagged but otherwise at liberty, and had previously requested de-radicalisation treatment but not received it.”
The attacker was tagged because he planned to murder people at the London Stock Exchange.


Russell Arben Fox 11.30.19 at 9:33 pm

Both beautiful and painful, Maria. Thanks so much for sharing.


Andy Norris 11.30.19 at 10:17 pm

I’m speechless. Thank you for what must have been a tough write.

The work of Jack Merritt will go on without him if others step up to the plate. I expect people in the UK will do just that once they make the connection.

Here in the NYC area one way to continue his work is by helping the Fortune Society – a group that I’d like to think he would endorse.


Irving Tsai 11.30.19 at 11:19 pm

I saw the link to this via a post by one of the world’s top physicists, who is very much an atheist. In the Christ-like nobility of the victim’s father, after whom the son likely acquired his selfless virtue, i am compelled to believe in the reality of a God, and of Angels in Heaven who weep at the goodness of mortals like these two. As a victim of crime and injustice my whole life, i ask myself literally every day why God lets these things happen? But that they do, yet some souls remain moral, selfless, forgiving…convinces me that there is more in play than Science will ever admit. God Bless!


Alan White 12.01.19 at 12:47 am

Thank you so much for so touchingly wringing out your soul on the vexed issue of what constitutes real and sustainable justice. And thank you for deeply humanizing a victim of the horrible event that played out all too superficially on US television. I have my own ideas about justice, but it seems appropriate here only to say how much I appreciated the wrenching honesty of this post.


George Vogrin 12.01.19 at 2:33 am

Thank you for this moving tribute.


JakeB 12.01.19 at 3:00 am

Thank you Maria. Like you I carry those two ideas at the same time and sometimes I have no idea what to do with them. I’m grateful for your giving what it took to write something like that.


Peter T 12.01.19 at 3:44 am


Just thank you.


c u n d gulag 12.01.19 at 3:53 am

Very moving post.
And it brought back some memories from my youth.

While in college, I taught Russian in a maximum security facility in NY. I also co-taught some some classed in American Lit.
The prisoner-students taught me much more than I did them, I think.
The goal of the program was for the prisoners to not only be more educated, but also have a college degree on their resume for when they are returned to society. “Lifer’s” took the classes too, mostly for their own edification.
The recidivism rate was demonstrably lower for the students who earned degrees – from Associates, to Masters level.

Then, Reagan was elected, and this worthy program virtually ceased to exist due to budget cuts in education.
Too often, imo, we’re a very stupid and cruel country.

This wo


Barb Roseman 12.01.19 at 6:38 am

Maria, thank you so much for sharing this. Your writing so brilliantly captures the mix of emotions you had at the time, and your sense of loss for Jack’s family and colleagues. You have a good heart, Maria, and I love that you are willing to share it with us in moments like this.


Matt 12.01.19 at 6:55 am

Thanks for this Maria. It’s very touching and sad.

I wanted to ask if you could explain this bit a little more. It seems unclear to me what’s meant, and I assume it’s local usage:
The attacker was apparently tagged but otherwise at liberty, and had previously requested de-radicalisation treatment but not received it.

What does it mean to be “tagged” here, and how does it relate to being in custody or not? And what would “de-radicalization treatment” be? It sounds Orwellian put like that. How would one go about requesting such a thing, if they wanted it, and does someone have an obligation to give it? (As put, it really does sound like an awful idea to me.)


Mike 12.01.19 at 7:16 am

Despite the sad circumstances it is refreshing to read something with balance on this subject. It has made me reconsider my position.


RichieRich 12.01.19 at 8:24 am

The attacker was apparently tagged but otherwise at liberty, and had previously requested de-radicalisation treatment but not received it.

The Guardian quotes Khan’s lawyer making this point.

The London Bridge attacker had asked for help to be deradicalised while he was in prison, but none was forthcoming, his solicitor has claimed.

However, other sources give a differing account.  For example, this from the ITV News website.

The London Bridge killer penned a letter from his jail cell asking to take part in a deradicalisation course to become “a good British citizen”, ITV News can reveal…

But during his prison sentence, he wrote a letter from his HMP Belmarsh prison cell, claiming he was “immature” when he committed the offence and now wanted to “learn Islam and its teachings” through a “deradicalidation course”…

ITV News understands that Khan was invited to do a “risk assessment and formulation” in 2012, while in Category A HMP Belmarsh – the first step of a deradicalisation programme.

However, it is understood that Khan repeatedly refused the risk assessment test and formulation, a process which would have been taking place before he wrote the letter.

Eventually, in 2014, he seemed to change his mind and went ahead with the risk assessment and formulation and was then on a programme most likely continuously until the end of the custodial part of sentence.

It is understood that once released from prison he went on to a Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP) which focuses on individuals who are subject to court-approved conditions, including all terrorism and terrorism-related offenders on probation licence).

According to the Ministry of Justice, a prisoner serving a sentence such as Khan’s would have been required to take part in a deradicalisation course.


Philip 12.01.19 at 11:04 am

Thank you, Maria, for a thoughtful and beautifully written piece.

Matt, Usman Khan was initially sentenced to a minimum of 8 years but with the potential to be detained indefinitely untill he was deemed safe to be released. This was changed on appeal to a 16 year sentence which meant he would be automatically released on parole after 8 years if he had a clean prison record. One of the parole conditions was for him to be ‘tagged’ i.e. to wear a GPS tracker. It seems he fell through a gap in the system as one type of sentencing was scrapped and its replacement could not be applied to him retrospectively. There is more information in this article.


Lynne 12.01.19 at 2:01 pm

Maria, it is not always easy to insist that conflicting points of view both be honoured. Easier to somehow let one cancel the other. Thank you for carrying your friend’s pain without giving up on the convicts. And a larger thank you for this whole piece, which gripped me throughout, and made me gasp, “Good Lord” when I realized who Jack was.


Michael 12.01.19 at 2:25 pm

Thank you for your deep and heartfelt meditation on Jack’s death and his life’s work, which very much needs to be supported.


Maria 12.01.19 at 6:57 pm

Hi everyone, I tend to need to run for the hills when I write this sort of thing so I do even less comment interaction than usual, but thanks a million for the kind words. M


Ray Vinmad 12.01.19 at 7:19 pm

I am profoundly grateful for this post, and for Jack and people like him. People in my family have been thrown away–or at least some have tried, and other seen them. Seeing is truly the best metaphor for this essential thing we have to do even when trying to protect ourselves. Fear makes us blind. Cruelty reproduces itself–but so does love, one of the best antidotes to cruelty.


Matt 12.01.19 at 10:07 pm

Thanks, Philip – I appreciate it. I’m sad to hear that indefinite detention for “dangerousness” is a real possibility in the UK. It’s a deeply bad thing – unjust and dangerous itself.


Stephen 12.02.19 at 5:36 pm

Maria: a most moving article, deep sympathy for those who suffered so unjustly.

Which would not include Usman Khan. And when Matt writes that he is “sad to hear that indefinite detention for “dangerousness” is a real possibility in the UK”, maybe a little perspective is needed. When the death penalty for murder was suspended in the UK in 1965, it was replaced by life imprisonment, with an understanding that sometimes (as in the case shortly afterwards of the child-torturing Moors Murderers, look them up, the details still bring tears to my eyes) life would really mean life, which it quite rightly did. So, for decades convicted criminals have been indefinitely detained because of their perceived dangerousness. Why do you find that unjust and dangerous? When do you think Ian Brady and Myra Hindley should have been set free?


susan minish 12.02.19 at 6:30 pm

A generous and heartfelt tribute to a young man who clearly had had an enormous amount to give. Thank you for writing such a perceptive and thought-provoking piece.


Philip 12.02.19 at 6:52 pm

Imprisonment for public protection sentences were put into legislation in 2003 and came into effect from 2005. They were intended for serious offences where life sentences could not be given. They were missused and some people with short sentences have been held for many more years because they have not been given the opportunity to prove they are no longer a danger to the public e.g. they needed to attend a relevant course but there was no availability for them. IPPs were abolished in 2012. I am not an expert in this but I believe the new sentencing regulations could not be applied to Khan. So when the appeal was upheld against his IPP the only option seemed to be that he would have a standard sentence with automatic early release.


Matt 12.02.19 at 9:00 pm

Stephen – I am convinced that detention for “dangerousness” is almost always wrong. Punishment should be because of wrong-doing. If the wrong-doing in question deserves a long sentence, then that should be given. But, when that’s done, and someone is further detained, it is itself an injustice. (This is leaving aside the fact that we’re not very good at determining “dangerousness”, and so will typically substitute various prejudices for facts.)

And, of course, if it is “dangerousness”, and not wrongdoing that we care about, then there is no need for wrong-doing before we “punish” people. The UK seems to have gone down this path to a degree already, but it’s a bad path. If you’re interested, some of my more developed arguments (co-authored) on the topic can be found here , in a paper arguing against “preventive” approaches to criminal behavior of the sort that have become popular in the UK (although not focusing on the UK directly.)


notGoodenough 12.04.19 at 10:43 am

Maria @ OP

[I was going to say more but don’t think this is the place, so for once I will try and be concise and relevant]

Thank you for a touching and thoughtful post about someone who was trying to make the world a little better.

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