Sir Stephen will next month begin work as the president of Unlock, Britain's first national association for reformed criminals. Its founding members are a former armed robber and an ex-burglar.
The organisation hopes to give prison inmates and released prisoners a voice in the formation of criminal justice policy. It will be launched at a ceremony attended by Richard Tilt, the director-general of the Prison Service, at Brixton prison, south London, next month.
For Sir Stephen, 67, the new position represents an opportunity after his unfortunate departure as principal of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, at the end of last month. He cited "differences of opinion" as the reason for his resignation but angry students blamed traditionalist dons for conspiring against him because they resented his colourful personality and new ideas.
He told The Independent that he thought Unlock could bring a new perspective to the debate on prison reform.
"The people in Unlock know what it's like to be locked up for nearly 24 hours a day. They are people who know exactly what it's like in prisons," he said. "I don't think politicians realise what drives people to cause crime.
"What Unlock are going to do is not so much finding jobs for people as trying to help develop a better penal system."
The driving force behind Unlock is Mark Leech, a former armed robber, who spent over 20 years in jails, and later used his experiences to write The Prisons Handbook, a jail equivalent of the Michelin guide, with an entry on every British prison. It is now going into a third edition.
Mr Leech wants the Government to redraft the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which he says makes it unreasonably difficult for ex-prisoners to find work.
He is due to meet Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, later this month to discuss Unlock and hopes that a government grant will be provided to help the organisation get off the ground.
Mr Leech said Sir Stephen's involvement in Unlock was crucial. "He has inspected all the prisons and he lends credibility to what we are saying from an independent point of view."
Mr Leech's partner in the project is Bob Turney, a former burglar who has been rehabilitated as a successful probation officer working in Berkshire.
Unlock has already attracted a series of high-profile patrons including the human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy, the penal reformer Frances Crook and former senior prison governor David Wilson.
Unlock's aims are to improve the levels of education and training in jails and give released prisoners better opportunities of finding work and turning away from crime. Sir Stephen has long been highly regarded by prisoners who appreciated his robust opposition to the hardline stance of former Home Secretary Michael Howard.
As Chief Inspector of Prisons he campaigned for improvements in prison conditions and was largely responsible for the introduction of in-cell toilets and the ending of the hated practice of slopping out. He was also tireless in fighting for more active regimes for prisoners.
He said: "The old Home Secretary believed that if we trained people too efficiently in prison we were giving them an unfair advantage over non- criminals."
By contrast, Sir Stephen recognised that many prisoners had untapped talents.Reuse content