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Boris Johnson’s response to the London Bridge attack is everything the victims wouldn’t want

Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones believed in rehabilitation. And yet their deaths are being used to further a draconian agenda

Ash Sarkar

Awhile after her father died, my best friend said something that has stuck with me ever since. “When you lose someone you love, you leave the land of the living. And you want to stay there with them, with their memory. Grief is the process of reluctantly making your way back.” In the years following, my own experiences of loss proved her words to be true. When all you want to do is sit quietly with someone’s memory, even other people’s voices are the most jarring intrusion.

But what the families of Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt, the two named victims of Friday’s terror attack in London Bridge, are going through is almost beyond comprehension. Compounding the terrible experience of bereavement is the horror of loss being turned into a public commodity. While it was always somewhat inevitable that a terrorist attack during a general election campaign would be wielded for grubby political gain, it doesn’t make it any less nauseating. Perhaps most tasteless of all is the Times reducing the theft of two young lives to a set of polling projections: as though such fathomless loss can or should be understood through the lens of a 3% swing in key marginal seats. Looking at some of the coverage, I can’t help but wonder if years of covering the grotesque chicanery of Westminster politics has desensitised journalists in the same way as watching nothing but horror films might.

But it is striking that Dave Merritt’s condemnations of those using his son’s death as a means to further their own “agenda of hate” has been reported by journalists as a generalised plea not to “politicise” the tragedy. Saskia Jones was a champion for victims of the criminal justice system. Jack Merritt was a staunch advocate of human rights and prisoner rehabilitation. His Twitter feed reveals an extraordinarily compassionate young man, dedicated to the principle of transformative justice. He was a long-time critic of toughening up prison stretches as a means of retribution. The “hang ‘em flog ‘em” brigade would do well to remember that Merritt and Jones’s work with the Learning Together scheme treated prisoners like humans.

Now, the Conservatives and their favoured newspapers oscillate between blaming Labour for terrorist attacks which have taken place under Tory rule, and putting the wheels in motion to impose harsher sentencing for violent offenders. To insist that this tragedy not be “politicised” by anyone is to rob those closest to Friday’s victims of the right to defend their loved one’s most deeply held values and beliefs. There is a difference between saying that it is disgusting to use the memory of a criminal justice reformer as a wedge for draconian legislation, and Boris Johnson’s slippery evasion of accountability on Sunday’s edition of The Andrew Marr Show.

The Ministry of Justice has endured the deepest cuts of any Whitehall department. After nine years of Conservative rule, funding has been slashed by 27%, and 300 magistrates and crown courts have closed in the last decade. The catastrophic part-privatisation of probation services (led by Chris Grayling, and reversed by Rory Stewart) included an attempt by Sodexo to replace 700 probation officers with check-in machines to monitor ex-inmates. Cuts to the prisons budget in England and Wales have led to dangerous rates of overcrowding, increased prisoner suicides and a record number of prisoner assaults.

In-prison rehabilitation activities, of the kind Merritt and Jones dedicated their lives to, have been cut to the bone. With little focus on how to fund and support prisoner’s reintegration into society, it should come as no surprise that the UK has a reoffending rate of 46% after one year among adult prisoners. For comparison, Norway’s rate is 25% after five. There is something deeply wrong with a political culture which only wants to talk about incarceration in the aftermath of a tragedy. Our priorities are all wrong if we only care about how long people are in prison for, and not what goes on inside them, and what happens after people are released.

Johnson and his merry band of reactionaries howls for tougher measures in the criminal justice system are merely a veneer to conceal their own failings in power. But worse still, the clamour for draconian prison sentences risks drowning out the voices of those silenced by Friday’s appalling act of violence. Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones led by example in refusing to dehumanise prisoners. We owe it to their memories to follow in their footsteps.

• Ash Sarkar is a senior editor at Novara Media, and lectures in political theory at the Sandberg Instituut

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