A few hundred yards from where Stephen Hawking first explored black holes from his wheelchair, is the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge. Hawking never shied away from really hard problems; nor do the Cambridge criminologists. There is no Nobel Prize for finding viable solutions to rehabilitating prisoners, but the Cambridge Learning Together program has forged new communal pathways for addressing this major societal challenge. The program seeks to bring together people in criminal justice and higher education institutions to study alongside each other in inclusive and transformative learning communities.
The Learning Together program began at the University of Cambridge in 2014, in partnership with HMP Grendon, a small prison at a village named Grendon Underwood, outside London. This program recognizes that collaboration underpins the growth of opportunities for the learning progression of students in prison, and the development of pathways towards non-offending futures.
Five years on, a celebration alumni event was organized for Black Friday, November 29. This took place in the City of London, at Fishmongers’ Hall, off London Bridge. This happens to be close to the Monument, where the RMS London office is situated.
One of the attendees who described his own prison experience was a convicted terrorist, Usman Khan, who was released in December 2018, after serving half of his 16-year jail sentence for plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange. At the time of his arrest, he had the private contact number of a notorious radical Islamist, Anjem Choudary. About a quarter of all U.K. Islamist terrorists have some link with Anjem Choudary, who was sentenced to five and a half years in September 2016. His early release in October 2018 has aroused fear that these links might be resumed.
Creative writing is part of the constructive learning program for prisoners. Usman Khan’s language was violence. During the afternoon creative writing session, he lashed out with a pair of knives, killing two people, and seriously injuring another three. He was chased out of the building onto London Bridge, where a group of ex-offenders and others managed to apprehend him, before the police arrived and shot him dead, believing he was wearing an explosive belt.
Prisons are known to be active breeding grounds for radicalization and Islamist extremism. So, the rehabilitation of Jihadi inmates is a tough task; one that has been made harder by the poster boy for terrorist rehabilitation. One of Usman Khan’s co-conspirators in the London Stock Exchange plot, Mohibur Rahman, was released in 2015, after which he plotted another terrorist attack together with two others he had met in jail. This plot was interdicted, and he was arrested and then jailed for life.
But except for those who die in prison, everyone who goes to prison ultimately goes home. In the United States, around sixty with terrorism-related convictions will be released before 2024. Terrorist rehabilitation is a new frontier in counterterrorism. Unlike other areas of the world, the United States has not established a formal rehabilitation program for convicted terrorists, nor developed infrastructures to support individuals upon release. However, an experimental terrorist rehabilitation program has been developed in Minnesota, where ISIS gained support within the Somali community.
The emergence of terrorist convicts onto urban streets poses a significant recidivism risk to U.S. homeland security. A nationwide rehabilitation program is needed. Ironically, an unrehabilitated U.K. terrorist may concentrate American minds on developing rehabilitation as an important terrorism risk mitigation measure.