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London Bridge prisoner scheme academic aided US killer's release

Academic behind prisoner scheme in London Bridge attack successfully campaigned for release of murderer and got him a job in her husband’s restaurant

  • London Bridge terrorist unleashed attack at conference of Cambridge scheme
  • Scheme founder was previously involved in controversial release of killer
  • Attack has sparked debate about sentencing and rehabilitation in the UK

One of the academics behind the prisoner education scheme which unwittingly helped the London Bridge terrorist was previously involved in the controversial release of a killer.

Dr Ruth Armstrong was one of the founders of Learning Together, a scheme in which prisoners, students and academics meet in prisons to discuss rehabilitation.

Organisers had invited Usman Khan to London for the five-year celebratory conference of the scheme before he used the trip to launch his terrorist knife attack, which claimed the lives of programme co-ordinator Jack Merritt and volunteer Saskia Jones.

The Learning Together idea has been hailed by criminology academics, as well as former Justice Secretary Michael Gove, for aiding the study of crime and prisons.

Scheme co-founder, criminologist Dr Armstrong, who witnessed Friday’s horrific events, has previously been involved in a number of studies and campaigns around prisoner welfare and rehabilitation.

In 2017, she helped a campaign which backed the controversial release of Dempsey Hawkins, who had killed his girlfriend four decades earlier.


Dr Ruth Armstrong (left) previously helped in the case of Dempsey Hawkins (right, after his return to the UK), who was controversially released from a U.S. jail and returned to Britain

Dr Armstrong assisted in Hawkins’ return to the UK and helped get him a job at her husband’s Mexican restaurant in London

Hawkins had been born in London in 1959 but moved to Staten Island, New York in his youth and, when he was 16, murdered his 14-year-old ex-girlfriend Susan Jacobson.

The killer was sentenced to at least 22 years in a U.S. jail and did not become eligible for parole until 2000. He was then denied freedom nine times until his lawyer, Issa Kohler-Hausmann, reached out to Dr Armstrong over his case.

Hawkins’ supporters complained he had served nearly four decades behind bars for a crime he committed while still a child, but his victims’ family said he had not showed remorse for the killing and was still a danger.

In an unusual decision which was reported on both sides of the Atlantic, a U.S. parole board ruled he could be released only if he was immediately deported to the U.K., the country of his birth.

At the time of the decision, Susan Jacobson’s sister Barbara Reno told of her fears he was still dangerous, telling The Sun: ‘We’re concerned about the safety of the people in the community he’s been released into.’

But Hawkins insisted he was sorry and told The New York Times: ‘I never stop reflecting in one sense or another. There’s always things to remind me. It never leaves me. My shame of it is absolute. It’s perpetual.’


Hawkins (left) served four decades in a U.S. jail for murdering his ex-girlfriend Susan Jacobson (right) in 1976


After his return to the UK, Hawkins was accused of sending ‘creepy’ messages to teacher Caroline Anderson (left) and of concealing his identity from another potential date

With the help of Dr Armstrong and others he was brought to the U.K. She put him touch with the group Prisoners Abroad and got a job in her husband Mexican restaurant.

The case was propelled back into the news last year when two women came forward to claim he had hidden his past them when trying to set up dates with them.

One of the women, who asked not to be named, said Hawkins used an alias to contact her on social networking site Meetup.com.

The second woman, teacher Caroline Anderson, told The Daily Mirror he bombarded her with ‘creepy’ messages after she refused to go for a drink with him.

Hawkins said at the time he had done nothing wrong and had not harassed anybody. He said he was trying to focus on his future.

Dr Armstrong is currently being supported by colleagues after witnessing the terrorist knife attacks at a conference at Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge on Friday.

Issues of prisoner rehabilitation are being discussed after convicted terrorist killed two members of staff at Learning Together, a Cambridge prisoner education programme

Cambridge University’s the vice chancellor of Cambridge Professor Stephen Toope said he had spoken to both Dr Armstrong and Dr Amy Ludlow about what happened.

He said: ‘I spent about an hour and a half with them yesterday and of course they are absolutely devastated by what has happened. They are deeply sad. They knew both Jack and Saskia well, working with them closely and admired them deeply.’

The future of Dr Armstrong’s Learning Together scheme is now however uncertain following Khan’s actions. Oxford University today cancelled a similar event following the terror attack.

The terrorist attack has also led to increased debate around the issue of criminal rehabilitation.

Fellow criminologist Ioan Durnescu tweeted his support for the two academics last night, tweeting: ‘Difficult times for criminology. Lets stand by our colleagues Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow!’

Dr Armstrong has been contacted for comment. 

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