Have you ever had a chance encounter with someone that has had a far reaching impact on people’s lives for the good? I have been fortunate enough to have had a few such meetings but this one was particularly memorable.
It was April 1997 and I was in the green room at the BBC Centre in Shepherds Bush, London waiting to appear on the Esther Rantzen Show. The programme was looking at people who had been in prison and how they had managed to turn their lives around.
Eighteen years earlier I had been released from Wandsworth prison having spent the previous twenty years drifting in and out of similar establishments. Since my release from Wandsworth, I had obtained a degree in Forensic Social Work and was now enjoying a career as a Probation Officer.
Also present in the green room was Mark Leech, then the editor of the Prisons Handbook, who had a similar background to me. We discovered that we had the same publisher, Bryan Gibson of Waterside Press. I found Mark very forthright in his opinions and was impressed with the way he handled questions from the studio audience. After the show we went for a bite to eat where the topic of our conversation turned to us increasingly coming across people with criminal convictions who were struggling to reintegrate back into society despite their best efforts to put their offending behind them. Their pasts were like millstones around their necks. It was clear that disclosure was a massive drawback in the jobs market and they felt that society was continuing to punish them, despite their best efforts.
We agreed that if people were genuine in trying to turn their lives around, there should be an organisation that could help them. We then went on to explore the possibility of establishing a charity that would help ex-offenders manage their antecedents in a positive way. It was Mark who came up with the name ‘Unlock’ – I thought it was a great idea, because that was how our days in prison were divided up, when the landing officers shouted “Unlock!” we knew it meant we could have time out of our cells. It was symbolic of freedom.
So we set about establishing the charity, but it needed to have some gravitas – we didn’t want to be seen as reps for a burglar’s union! Lord Longford had befriended me while I was at university and he and I remained close friends up until his death in 2001. Frank had been good enough to open many doors for me and I managed to get him on board and he had many great ideas regarding the charity.
In the meantime Mark had contacted Sir Stephen Tumim who had been Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons from 1987 to 1995, and he also got behind Unlock, becoming the charity’s founding President.
Mark and I had a meeting with the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who gave us an hour of his time. We told him about the objectives of Unlock and that we were hoping to obtain some government funding. We also discussed repealing the 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.
Simultaneously I was co-writing a book with Angela Devlin entitled ‘Going Straight‘, which contained interviews with a number of people who, since leaving prison, had totally changed their lifestyles and gone on to build successful careers. Jack Straw wrote the foreword for the book and it became core text reading in universities for students studying Criminology. We donated the royalties from the book to Unlock.
We received a lot of support from many people, including David Wilson, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University and former Prison Governor, who shared with us his wealth of knowledge, and Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, who generously let us use her offices for meetings.
Stephen Fry, actor and author, agreed to be involved in the launch of the charity and was very helpful with his time. His involvement meant we attracted a great deal of media attention.
Getting off the ground
Unlock was duly launched at Pentonville Prison in the spring of 1999 to an audience made up of inmates, members of the media, and invited guests.
David Wilson was our first speaker, followed Sir Stephen Tumim, myself, then Mark. Our concluding speaker was Stephen Fry, who held the audience spellbound for over half an hour, telling us about his time in Pucklechurch Young Offenders Institution. Such a nice man – I can see why he is regarded as a national treasure.
In 2000, Unlock was really starting to take off. Probation was undergoing a lot of changes with the introduction of Youth Offending Teams, which was putting a lot of demands on my time, plus I was also due to go to the States to study their penal system, and with five young children and a mortgage, conventional wisdom dictated that I couldn’t serve two masters at the same time. Regretfully I felt that I couldn’t give the charity the time that it deserved, so I took a back seat and we recruited Bobby Cummines to take over from me.
Unlock is driven by the belief that most people are redeemable and that their lives shouldn’t be defined by the mistakes of their past. The ethos of Unlock is to look at the positives in people and draw the best out of them.
In my case it was many years ago that I managed to become a volunteer with the Probation Service. I was full of self-doubt, and the chances of advancing in the service seemed impossible, and if the truth were known I believed that Probation was only using me as a cosmetic job, to show how they were allowing an ex-offender to become a volunteer.
But that was so far from the truth. In fact, the service saw qualities in me that were far beyond my level of comprehension. They built on my fragile self-belief and gave me tasks that would stretch my abilities. Of course I did make some mistakes, but nonetheless I reached a level I didn’t think possible, and the rest is now history.
And that is what Unlock is about – getting the best out of people.
To illustrate this, I am often invited to give talks in colleges and sixth forms and as part of my talk I will hold up a fifty pound note and ask the audience who would like it. Every time I get the same response – a forest of hands are raised as everyone in the room wants the money. Then I screw up the note, throw it on the floor then stamp all over it, then hold it up again and ask if they still want it – again everyone holds up their hands. I then ask them why and always get the same reply that of course they do as it is still valuable! That is how Unlock perceives the people they work with – for sure they screwed up, but they recognise the value that is in everyone.
Unlock is all about harnessing people’s skills in a positive way, helping people to identify their talents, and then magnifying them. But it is also more than that, it’s not about enabling people to move away from offending, it’s about helping them feel that they are no longer standing on the peripherals of society, but playing a pivotal role in reintegrating themselves back into a productive life.
The Longford Prize 2016
Following the death of Lord Longford in August 2001, the Longford Trust was established. His family invited me to become Patron of the Trust, which I gladly accepted and I was invited to sit on the panel of judges which would select the recipients of the annual Longford Prize award. The competition was always fierce, each year we would be inundated with nominees that we would whittle down to a shortlist. It was one of the most difficult tasks I have ever been involved in. There were so many good causes it was extremely difficult to select a winner.
So, when Unlock was awarded the Longford Prize this year I felt extremely proud to be one of the founders of the charity all those years ago when none of us could have visualised that it would be such a big player in the rehabilitation of offenders.
I am really grateful to all the staff and volunteers at Unlock for the vital work they are doing in helping people to cast off the baggage of their past. My time with this wonderful charity was incredibly rewarding and I am so happy to see it going from strength to strength.
By Bob Turney – Co-founder of Unlock
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