Founded by people who had criminal convictions, Unlock was set-up over twenty years ago to challenge the obstacles people with criminal records faced when trying to move on with their lives. It is the reason they still exist today. Going Straight, a book published 25 years ago, which coincided with the foundation of Unlock, delves further into the issue through telling the stories of people who have rebuilt their lives after a stint in prison.
Eleven million people in the UK have criminal records – whether we are aware or not, every one of us knows someone who will have a criminal record (it might even be us). A lot of these are for minor offences, committed in youth, and often resulted in non-custodial sentences. However, they can still cause the people who hold them a lot of problems, particularly when getting employment, even though in many cases employers have no need to know.
A lot of criminal records are for minor offences… however, they can still cause the people who hold them a lot of problems.
Unlock’s priorities are driven by the problems their beneficiaries face. For the past few years, this has meant a focus on access to employment and challenging criminal record disclosure laws (which determine which offences needed to be disclosed and for how long for). Unlock works to change things at a policy level but also runs a multi-channel helpline to ensure people understand how processes currently work to enable them to challenge unfair practice where they come across it.
Like a lot of us with office-based jobs, the Unlock team had to swiftly move to homeworking earlier this year. During this time, there were significant developments in their campaign for fair checks (calling for a review of the law on the disclosure of criminal records to reduce the length of time a record is revealed), bringing fresh hope in changes in this area and keeping the team busy. Only last week, the Home Office wrote to Chris to say that changes were being introduced at the end of November.
Chris says the impact of Covid-19 is about to hit the people Unlock represent pretty heavily. Low employment rates in the past meant Unlock’s arguments for more inclusive recruitment approaches towards those with criminal convictions landed well with those they were trying to influence. This argument will be harder to make now with unemployment rates soaring – a lot of people will lose jobs which they had to fight stigma to secure in the first place. Chris worries that these folks, who have overcome numerous obstacles to rebuild their lives, will be back to facing immense stigma in their bid to secure a new job.
A lot of people will lose jobs which they had to fight stigma to secure in the first place.
As a co-director of the charity, Chris places importance on emphasising Unlock’s specific purpose and their organisational priorities. Naturally, they are asked to get involved with other important work happening in the criminal justice system, but have to say no to a lot of other issues they are passionate about so they can focus on their priorities. The issues Unlock work on are so challenging and systematically embedded in society, they are ambitious but also pragmatic. For them, it is about getting the balance right on their approaches. They are constantly evaluating and learning – thinking about what is needed and what they can do.
The issues Unlock work on are so challenging and systematically embedded in society, they are ambitious but also pragmatic.
Chris has been with Unlock for twelve years, joining the organisation straight after finishing a master’s degree in law. For him, putting his understanding of the law into practice was important because of his own criminal record. The Unlock job was quite unique in that having a criminal record was actually an asset. Though most days, the fact that Chris has lived experience of the criminal justice system isn’t the reason why he does what he does, but no doubt subconsciously it is a key reason why he will give the job his absolute best.
For Chris, looking after himself is crucial as he knows it will help keep him in the fight much longer. It also sets an example to his team and help solidify boundaries which allow him to dedicate time and energy to the job without sacrificing his wellbeing. For example, Chris always has an out of office on explaining his working patterns and that there might be a delay in his response. He’s clear that evenings and weekends are for his family. With two young children, he needs to be both director and dad, so overworking isn’t an option.
Chris advises others seeking to do similar work to remain passionate but be patient. It’s important to not be put off by existing organisations occupying the same space, or the sometimes weird world of charities and how competitive it can sometimes seem. It’s hard work running a charity, it’s hard to secure funding, it’s hard to achieve success, but if you can remain passionate and patient you will achieve some of what you are hoping to.
Remain passionate but be patient
Unlock are committed to being independent of government, largely relying on trusts and foundations for grants to enable their work to continue. Small amounts of money make a big difference to them, so if you can donate a couple of quid a month, it will go a long way. They also have lots of campaign actions anyone can do, so you can add your support for their work. Finally, if you have recruitment responsibilities in your workplace, Unlock have a dedicated website to help you hire people with convictions and deal with criminal records fairly – you might be overlooking the very person you need in your team!
Unlock received a grant from the Foundation in 2019 to enable them to support the implementation of changes to the criminal record disclosure regime following their intervention in a successful ruling by the Supreme Court (Gallagher, R, P, G and W v Secretary of State for the Home Department (2019)).
This grant was given under our Implementation of Successful Litigation Fund – a pilot fund running in 2019/20 to help organisations to carry out follow-up work after successful litigation to ensure that court judgements are actually implemented in practice.