Fry to be offenders' champion

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STEPHEN FRY, the actor and humourist, has emerged as the unlikely new champion of Britain's old lags. The tweedy and erudite performer has been appointed director of the first national association of ex-offenders.

Mr Fry's interest in the rehabilitation of prisoners stems from his experience of three months in jail facing fraud charges as a young man, after being wanted by police in eight counties.

He will launch Unlock at Pentonville prison in London next week. It aims to give ex-prisoners a voice in the debate on the future of the criminal justice system and put in place new measures which will help reform criminals in jail and complete their rehabilitation after release.

Mr Fry said yesterday: "Many people have a simplistic approach to crime and its causes but the situation is often more complex than it appears. I believe Unlock is an excellent organisation, much needed and long overdue."

Mr Fry, who played another former prisoner, Oscar Wilde in the recent Hollywood film Wilde, experienced life inside after running away from his exams while a student at Norfolk College of Art and Technology. He paid for his travels with a clutch of stolen credit cards. He was held in jail on remand, but recovered to win a scholarship to Cambridge.

It was during the February 1995 theatre performance of Cell Mates - in which Mr Fry played the spy George Blake - that the actor suffered the low-point in his career. The play closed after Mr Fry, in a state of depression, deserted the production and fled to Belgium.

In recognition of the talents of some of those in jail, Mr Fry will, next Thursday, present the annual Koestler awards for outstanding pieces of artwork by prison inmates at a ceremony in west London.

Two days earlier he will be at Pentonville with Richard Tilt, the director general of the Prison Service, to launch Unlock.

Mark Leech, the chairman of Unlock, a reformed armed robber who makes his living as a writer, said Mr Fry was "a classic example of how apparent failure can with effort be turned into success".

Unlock also has the support of the former chief inspector of prisons, Sir Stephen Tumim, who has agreed to become its president.