Eric Allison, who became the Guardian’s prison correspondent aged 60 after spending much of his life in jail, has died. He had been recently diagnosed with secondary bone cancer and was 79.
Allison, who claimed to be the only man to ever escape from Strangeways prison in Manchester, joined the Guardian in 2003 after serving multiple jail terms for fraud, theft and burglary.
He got the job after answering an advert in the paper, which said a criminal record was no bar to application.
He impressed the then-editor, Alan Rusbridger, with his passion for fighting injustice and his stylish way with words. At his interview he promised that he would go straight if given the job – a vow he kept throughout his 19-year Guardian tenure, despite frequent grumblings that his first job was much better paid.
In what he called his second career, Allison wrote widely across the Guardian, exposing cruelty in the prison system and particularly in young offenders’ institutions.
He formed a long working partnership and firm friendship with feature writer Simon Hattenstone, a fellow Mancunian (though a Manchester City fan, when Allison was always United). Earlier this year the two investigated the number of prisoners dying on remand, and in 2016 they exposed how the government had approved brutal restraint techniques which could kill children in jail.
Their work on the abuse of children in Medway secure training centre contributed to the security giant G4S being stripped of its contract to run the children’s prison.
In 2011 the pair’s investigation into sexual abuse at Medomsley detention centre led to Operation Seabrook, one of the largest single abuse inquiries in the UK, with more than 1,600 former inmates coming forward to report allegations of abuse. Allison and Hattensone won an Amnesty media award for their work on the story.
Much loved in the Guardian’s Manchester office, where he was based throughout his journalistic career, Allison enjoyed reminiscing about the old days when not raging against the system. He was particularly proud of escaping from Strangeways – now HMP Manchester – using a forged bail warrant. No one else had ever managed such a feat, he always claimed.
He was out of jail when the Strangeways riots took place in 1990 but egged on the prisoners from the street using a megaphone. He went on to co-author a book on the protest, which gave him the confidence to believe that he may one day get paid for writing.
His first conviction came when he was a heavy-smoking 11-year-old, though he insisted that was merely the first time the police caught him. By 14, he was in jail, serving four months for stealing a chewing gum machine.
He learned early that prison in England doesn’t work – a fact that nagged at him throughout his life as he used his journalism to fight for a system that doesn’t just punish but also rehabilitates.
The youth detention centre he went to had no improving effect on him, he recalled in an interview to mark the start of his Guardian job in 2003: “It was supposed to be a short sharp shock. Never worked. All it did was make you fitter. Virtually everybody I saw in that detention centre in ‘57 I’ve seen on my travels through the system. Every single one.”
Allison arrived at the Guardian unable to use a computer, having bypassed the technological advances of the 90s because he was serving his longest stretch – seven years – for breaking into a bank in Manchester and stealing cheques worth a million pounds.
That final job also involved the forgery of Giro cheques. He would say that the counterfeits were so convincing that the government was forced to withdraw the real ones from circulation, because post office staff could not tell the difference between “ours” and “theirs”.
He had an atlas-like memory of England’s geography, and would often claim to have visited every village big enough for two post offices (it only made them worth a visit if he could commit cheque fraud in at least two). He adored walking in the Peak District and was soppy about his dogs – latterly two Romanian street mutts, Nellie, named after his mum, and Prince.
He came from what he always called a “very straight family”. His father, after leaving the army, was a jack of all trades and his mother brought Allison and his three older brothers up in their home in Gorton, east Manchester.
Released from prison for the final time a few days before the new millennium dawned, Allison initially thought of his freedom as a sabbatical from crime. But as his writing career progressed he felt duty bound to stay on the right side of the law. Occasionally old pals would try to tempt him back to his old ways but he was determined to live a life without crime.
Rusbridger said he decided the Guardian needed a prison correspondent because so little was known about what goes on behind the jail walls.
“It was a wild idea to hire an ex-con to be the Guardian’s prison correspondent but Eric was the perfect choice. He had immaculate credentials (16 years inside a variety of institutions) and a long track record of causing trouble. He promised to go straight if he got the Guardian role – though he complained that journalism paid poorly compared with crime (with more stress),” said Rusbridger.
“Over the years he campaigned, reported, advocated and investigated on behalf of the underdogs he knew so well. He cast a steady light on a world successive governments would rather were kept in the dark. Prisoners knew they had a reliable witness on their case.
“My suspicion is that Eric was probably not a world-class bank robber. But he was a class act as a late-life journalist and it’s so sad that his unflinching concentration on an under-reported world has been lost.”
Allison became a well-respected authority on prisons and a passionate campaigner against miscarriages of justice. He believed fervently in the innocence of those whose cases he took up, including that of Jeremy Bamber, who is serving a life sentence for killing his adoptive parents, sister and her twin boys in 1985.
Hattenstone said of him: “Despite a lifetime of criminal activity, maybe because of it, he was the most moral man I knew. When he saw a miscarriage of justice, nobody fought like Eric to have it overturned. His work became his life. He would spend months and sometimes years working on cases that never saw the light of day in print – usually because they were legally too tricky, occasionally because editors didn’t share our faith. There were times in recent years when he became so obsessed with the Jeremy Bamber case that he could talk of little else. Eric was somebody you wanted on your side, as a friend, colleague or a victim of a miscarriage of justice.”
After leaving jail Allison managed to rent a council house in Gorton, where the Channel 4 show Shameless was soon to be filmed. In a piece for the Guardian in 2005 he wrote of his love of the much-maligned area, praising his neighbours for showing “splendid defiance of the overwhelming odds they face on a daily basis”.
Always fighting for the underdog, Allison wrote: “Perhaps perversely, the place keeps me healthily angry about injustice and the way society demonises young people in deprived areas. There is also little danger, I fancy, of feeling above my station in Gorton.”
He is survived by two of his brothers, Walter and Tommy, along with his daughters, Kerry and Caroline, and five grandchildren.