NEWSMAKER: Reforming character - Bobby Cummines, Chief executive, Unlock

Emma Maier

Jeffrey Archer may have been the one hitting the headlines this month, but Bobby Cummines is the real driving force of the prison reform movement. While the concept of penal reform has been around for decades, it was Cummines who brought it to life five years ago by involving ex-offenders in the process.

"When I see people with criminology degrees standing up with their theories on prison reform, I respect their academic work, but sometimes you need someone who has real world experience," says Cummines. "After all, you can learn the theory of bread-making, but unless you put your fingers in the dough, you won't get a loaf."

And he has certainly done his fair share of kneading. His criminal life began in 1967, when he was convicted of possessing a sawn-off shotgun at the age of 16. By the time he decided to 'go straight' 20 years later, he had seen the inside of more than 10 prisons and detention centres up and down the country, having served 13 out of 20 years for various serious offences, including manslaughter and robbery. He was even described by the then Home Office minister David Mellor as one of Britain's most dangerous men.

"I have spent longer on a prison toilet than Archer spent behind bars," quips Cummines. "I think I am better qualified to talk about prison reform."

He is clearly unimpressed by Jeffrey Archer's recent speech at the Howard League conference about prison education. "Jeffrey Archer writes great fiction, lives great fiction and I'm sure sometimes still speaks good fiction - I only have time to deal with facts," he says.

But despite the rhetoric, he actually agrees with many of Archer's points, and is probably more annoyed by the way the disgraced peer was treated by the charity.

"The Howard League used him as a crowd-puller to get bums on seats," he says. "It should be making real reforms to prisons, like the Prison Reform Trust, or Apex (an ex-offender employment charity), not running a freak show.

"I would never have abused an ex-offender in that way. Jonathan Aitken has been one of our patrons for some years and I have never once stood him up to be savaged by the media. If anyone is going to be savaged, let it be me."

When he decided to put the criminal world behind him, Cummines faced the same hurdles as most ex-offenders - social exclusion and employer prejudice. It took a fierce determination and a return to education to overcome these and be accepted by society again - something not all ex-offenders manage.

When Cummines was invited to join Unlock, he was determined to use his experiences to make a difference. "When I first joined, there was too much talking and not enough walking," he says. "Inciting debate is all very well, but there are people out there who are living it, and they wanted action."

Within a few months, Cummines had helped transform an informal association for ex-offenders into a motivated organisation with a serious purpose, and had applied for charitable status.

Initially, it was not welcomed into the charity sector, and found raising funds difficult.

"Some people even said that we were a gangsters' union - a front for the underworld to corrupt politicians," says Cummines disbelievingly.

"I was more worried about the politicians corrupting us!"

Despite the challenges, Unlock has achieved a huge amount in a very short time. The charity works with young people at risk of offending to tell them about the realities of criminal life, helps ex-offenders reintegrate and works with business to overcome prejudice. It also provides practical services. Until recently, ex-offenders were unable to get basic house and contents insurance, and many were refused bank accounts and mortgages.

"Most employers pay by BACs transfer, and if ex-offenders can't get a bank account it's a problem," Cummines says. "Without a bank account, you can't get a job, then it's all too easy to slip back into crime."

So, with characteristic determination and optimism, Cummines decided to tackle this.

"I was brought into Unlock because of my skill and reputation for cutting deals," he says. And cut a deal he did. He approached Lloyds of London and told the insurer it was missing out on the custom of some 68,000 people.

"They asked where these people were, and when I said 'in prison', their jaws hit the floor," he recalls with a grin.

But Cummines won them over, and together they set up the Esteem Insurance Company, specifically for ex-offenders. Next, deals were done on bank accounts and mortgages. He is also committed to developing training and employment opportunities.

"I look at the types of industry that ex-offenders might be suited to: retail, management - there are lots," he says. "For example, if someone was put away for drug dealing, they are likely to have quality control skills, experience of distribution, money management - these are all essential skills for management. It's all about making people realise that they are not worthless and that they do have something to offer."

Despite all these achievements, Cummines insists he is nothing special.

"It's rubbish, all the things you hear about how great chief executives are," he says. "Everyone has a part to play and without the other people here, Unlock wouldn't run - I am nothing special, I come in and make the tea like anyone else."

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