Father of Jack Merritt tells how family is facing anniversary of his son’s death in London Bridge terror attack
The father of Jack Merritt has told of his hopes for his son’s legacy, one year after the London Bridge terror attack that claimed his life.
It was on November 29, 2019, that the 25-year-old was stabbed to death by convicted terrorist Usman Khan as he attended an event meant to celebrate the work of the University of Cambridge’s Learning Together programme for prisoners, of which Jack was co-ordinator.
Sunday will mark the first anniversary of the attack, in which Jack’s fellow Cambridge graduate Saskia Jones, 23, was also killed. The Merritt family have asked friends and colleagues to do “something creative” to mark the occasion.
Jack’s father, David Merritt, told the Cambridge Independent: “We’re coping very well, I think. This year has obviously been difficult in lots of ways because of lockdown. We haven’t been able to do things we would have liked to have done to celebrate Jack’s life.
“By this time there would have been benefit concerts and all sorts of fundraising going on.
“We’ve taken the decision to approach the anniversary head-on.
“We had Jack’s birthday on October 1, which was the first one since, so was difficult. We went for a very long walk with the dog in Suffolk that day and sat on the beach and got out in the air together, rather than sit in the house.
“It’s the same with this Sunday. We have contacted all of Jack’s friends and colleagues to ask them to do something creative on the day.
“My wife, Anne, and our very good friend Fran, who is an art psychotherapist, are going to be doing some art at home with Leanne [Jack’s girlfriend]. Myself and my son Joe are going to be cooking a nice meal.
“We’ve set up a hashtag – #CreatingwithJackMerritt – so people can post what they’ve done on Instagram. I expect there will be all sorts up there.
“It’s going to be a difficult day whatever happens. We just wanted to do something positive.”
And the Merritts, from Cottenham, hope that Jack’s legacy will be a positive impact on the way we treat prisoners, a cause that Jack – who completed a master’s degree at Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology – believed in strongly.
“I would hope that we would be able to do something positive in terms of the criminal justice system and promoting a more progressive and, for want of a better word, liberal approach to prisoners and the rehabilitation of people who find themselves in prison,” said David.
“The approach we have got at the moment is very punitive and it’s allied to a prison system that is desperately underfunded. Staff numbers have been cut by over a third since 2010 and prisoners, amid the pandemic, are locked up in their cells for 23 or 23.5 hours a day. All that is storing up trouble for the future and doesn’t lead to good outcomes.
“The work that Jack was doing with prisons was an education programme called Learning Together, where Cambridge students learned with prisoners and they learned together and with each other.
“It obviously had good outcomes in terms of helping people with their development and rehabilitation. This had nothing to do with the government – it was funded by the University of Cambridge and Learning Together via various sponsorship sources.
“It seems to me the whole approach to rehabilitation and education is on a shoestring and dependent on a lot on charity and goodwill and people doing things voluntarily.
“It would be great to think that there would be a turning point, where we realise it doesn’t work and it’s not making us safer. It’s making people worse and people are more likely to reoffend when they get out.”
Describing the work of son, who also attended Cottenham Village College, Hills Road Sixth Form and the University of Manchester, he said: “Jack’s whole approach was progressive – if there was one word to say about him, I’d say progressive.
“He got to know people in prison, their backgrounds and where they came from and it’s no coincidence that over half the people in prison have been in the care system. A lot of them come from very abusive backgrounds.
“We would like to focus some attention on a kinder, more progressive way of doing things.”
David is supporting one of the prisoners whom Jack formed a friendship with – Rosca Onya, who is releasing a rap single in his memory, simply called Jack.
The 29-year-old, who calls David ‘Dad’ out of respect, grew up in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His brother was murdered, his parents captured amid the civil war and he lost track of his sister in the mass camps, before arriving in the UK as a refugee.
“What that boy’s been through is nobody’s business,” said David. “He got here and couldn’t speak English. He went to school, where he got bullied and called all sorts of names. He ended up with a gang, which is a way of protecting yourself. He did some stupid things and ended up in prison.
“But he’s really turned his life around. He’s worked really, really hard. He’s an intelligent guy. He speaks good English now, he speaks from the heart and he doesn’t make excuses for what he did. He takes full responsibility and he is almost a model of how you want prison to turn people out, so I wanted to support that.
“He was lucky to end up in Grendon Prison, which is a therapeutic prison where they had Learning Together and all sorts of other programmes. Unfortunately, most prisons are not like that.”
Rosca, 29, hopes to raise £5,000 through sales of his single for Learning Together, Just for Kids Law and JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association. Funds are also being raised via a GoFundMe page.
He said: “I met Jack when I was in HM Prison Grendon, an amazing therapeutic prison that helped me to view life in a different way.
“When I came to the UK, I was nine; I had experienced so much terror in my short lifetime and had no emotional or life parachute. I didn’t have people around me I could trust. I ended up in prison because I got involved with a local gang – they made me feel like I belonged by night while I was being bullied at school by day.
“Whilst I deeply regret and now take ownership of my actions, I never would have met Jack otherwise.
“Jack wasn’t like most people I had known before – he didn’t see black or white, as I wrote in the lyrics of the song. We were both passionate about music and he helped me pass a criminology course at Cambridge University.”
David said Jack found the atmosphere in prison, where the Learning Together courses were held, “very stressful”.
“They all did. Cambridge University provided counselling for staff and students on the Learning Together course. He said ‘I can’t imagine being locked up in there all the time’.
“It’s not a holiday camp by any means. They are often dangerous and violent places. The prisons he worked in were doing positive things, but that doesn’t happen in most, unfortunately.”
He has been critical of efforts by politicians to use Khan’s actions for headline-grabbing soundbites about being tough on crime.
“The rhetoric we got from Boris Johnson during the election campaign last year was just about making prison sentences longer. He was talking about all prisoners,” recalled David.
“The person who killed Jack was a convicted terrorist – he was not typical by any means. I think he was the only person on the courses who had convicted those sorts of offences and they are a different category.
“It was used as an excuse to jump on the bandwagon and say ‘We’re going to be tough on crime and extend prison sentences for serious and violent offenders and make sure they serve two-thirds of their sentence instead of half’. That might be OK if at the same time you put a lot of resources into education and rehabilitation. Otherwise, all you’re doing is keeping people in terrible conditions for longer and chucking them out on the streets with no money.
“I think they get something like £46 when they are discharged, regardless of where they are, which is usually nowhere near where they live. People were being discharged from prison in Suffolk with £46 and a sleeping bag.
“That’s what the state does. And we expect these people not to reoffend. How are they supposed to survive?”
Khan, 28, had served half of his 16-year sentence for his role in a plot to blow up the London Stock Exchange and US Embassy and target individuals including then London Mayor Boris Johnson.
He was armed with two knives and wore a fake suicide vest on the day of his murderous attack at Fishmongers’ Hall in London, during which he also injured two people, before he was tackled by members of the public with a narwhal tusk, a decorative pike and a fire extinguisher. Police shot him dead on London Bridge.
On Wednesday, the Merritts filed a High Court claim against the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office ahead of the one-year claim window closing.
David said it was a “shame and unnecessary” to have issued proceedings against the government over his son’s death and “not what we want to be doing on the anniversary of our son’s death”.
However, the two government departments failed to agree to a delay to any legal action until all investigations are completed, including the inquest due to begin on April 12, 2021.
A pre-inquest hearing in October heard suggestions from the Merritt family’s lawyer that a string of failings, from officer training to a lack of “rudimentary” bag checks, had allowed him to carry out the attacks.
Asked what he hopes for from the inquest, David said: “It’s probably best not to hope for too much because inquests don’t always deliver what you expect.
“I think what I would hope is firstly to find out why Khan did what he did. But I don’t know if there are any clues that we will be given and I’m not sure it will even help us to know, really, as it won’t change anything.
“More important than that is to understand what happened to Khan in prison and, after he was released, the way he was handled, monitored and supervised, to see – as I very strongly suspect – if mistakes were made.
“I’m not interested in scapegoating individual officers. It’s rarely about individuals. It’s usually systemic failures, due to underfunding, lack of co-ordination or understaffing. I’d like to know and I’d like lessons to be learned if they can be learned because you don’t want this to happen to anybody else.
“It’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to a family.
“It’s happened before and, unfortunately, it will probably happen again but you would like to think if there were mistakes made, they might at least learn from that in terms of how they manage people who have been convicted terrorists when they are released. Most of them will be released in the end.”