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Bob Cummines, OBE, FRSA and chief executive of Unlock, the national association of ex-offenders, was formerly a notorious bank robber. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian
"Education liberated me from a life of crime," says Bobby Cummines, now a life fellow of the RSA, soon to receive an honorary master's from the Open University, and, last month, awarded the OBE by the Queen at Buckingham Palace for his services to reformed offenders. It's not bad for a former armed robber who spent a total of 13 years in high security prisons before deciding he needed to change for the better.
As founder member and chief executive of Unlock, the national association of reformed offenders, Cummines has spent the last 12 years campaigning against the social exclusion and discrimination that stymies the efforts of many reformed offenders to "go straight."
He leads a team of four staff operating from a tiny office above a dentist in Snodland, Kent. Unlock receives no government funding and relies on charity donations for its existence. But the organisation thinks big and boasts some significant successes in its fight for the right of offenders who have served their sentences and have a desire to live crime-free, productive lives to be treated by fairly by the rest of society.
A notable success was persuading sections of the insurance and banking industries of the merits of welcoming prisoners and ex-prisoners as customers. Unlock has established a specialist insurance broker service and now has a list of 17 insurers on its Insurance and Convictions Consumer Guidance leaflet. Working with Halifax and Barclays, Cummines has developed a guide to enable prison staff to assist people in prison or on the verge of release to open bank accounts. "The emphasis of our work is to reduce the likelihood of re-offending by people who have served their sentences," he says. "Without bank accounts people cannot access the financial services the rest of us take for granted."
It is hard to imagine that Cummines was ever part of a criminal culture. But like many who end up in prison, he started young. "I was a bright kid, but I never played by the rules. I was from a big Irish family of eight children. We lived in King's Cross in London when it was at its worst with drugs, gangs, prostitutes, you name it. To get out of the slums you became a bricklayer, joined the army or became a villain. Thieving was quite acceptable, so long as you didn't rob your own people."
He left school at 15 with no qualifications, but got a job in a shipping office. He puts the wrong turn his life took down to his first encounter with the police. "I was in a park with my mates when somebody let off a starting pistol. The police were called and began bullying us. I stood up to them." He says the police returned later and produced a cut-throat razor they said was his. "It was a fit-up," he says. "My dad said the police don't tell lies, plead guilty, you'll get a fine and it'll be forgotten about in a few years."
He got the fine, but his bosses at the shipping office saw his guilty plea and sacked him. "I was gutted," he says. "I thought, if you want me to be bad I'll show you how bad I can be." Within a year he was sentenced to six months in a detention centre for the possession of a sawn off shotgun. "It was supposed to be a short sharp shock, but it was just violence practised against vulnerable kids. I came out of there tougher and angrier than ever."
Over the next two decades Cummines established himself as a hard-core professional criminal. "If I had carried on, I would either have been shot dead by the police or innocent members of the public could have been shot."
The change came while he was serving a 12-year sentence and he credits a prison education officer, a prison probation officer and a former south London gang boss. "I started studying social science and psychology with the Open University. I began reading about deviant behaviour and thought, 'I'm reading about me!' The more I read, the more I realised I didn't have to be the way I was. The high I used to get from crime was replaced by a bigger high from learning."
Cummines left prison for the last time almost 25 years ago. He struggled to get work and fit into the "straight" world, but eventually succeeded, getting a degree at Greenwich University and going on to hold senior positions with various employers. "Getting work was hard because I had to make up my employment history," he says. "To live an honest life, I had to be dishonest about my past. That was one of my motivations for joining Unlock and one of the things we are campaigning to resolve," he says. As chief executive he has been a member of the home affairs select committee inquiry into the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, an expert witness on to the home affairs select committee on prisoner education and a specialist adviser in the 2004 public inquiry into murder of Zahid Mubarek in Feltham Young Offenders Institution.
"Prison doesn't work, education works," Cummines concludes. His one big dream is for a series of super academies, which he has christened the Diamond Project. The aim would be to provide training, education, advice and guidance for low tariff offenders and those at risk of breaking the law. Cummines and his colleagues have spent years working on the proposals. They held talks with the last Labour government and have met the coalition government. During his last meeting with Lord McNally, minister of state for justice, the peer promised to arrange meetings between Unlock and other senior officials.
The recent government review of prisoner education pledged to put education and training at the heart of Ken Clarke's promised "rehabilitation revolution" in our jails. Cummines, who has already secured the promise of several hundred million pounds' worth of private finance for the project, is hopeful. "I told Lord McNally, 'People usually come here to ask you for money, but I want to give you money,'" he says, smiling.
With an average cost of £37,000 a year to keep someone in prison and the cost of re-offending estimated by the home office at between £9bn and £13bn a year perhaps he has a point.
"They would be investing in good behaviour. You can educate people out of crime. Or you can educate people into crime, by giving them no education and banging them up with experienced criminals."