Eric McGraw obituary

Penal reform campaigner who founded Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners

Without Eric McGraw, who has died aged 76, there would have been no Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees. McGraw, a social justice campaigner, created the title in the wake of the Strangeways riot in 1990.

At the time he was director of the prisoner befriending charity New Bridge, co-founded by the prison reformer Lord (Frank) Longford to provide supportive links between prisoners and the community. In that capacity McGraw attended the subsequent Woolf inquiry into the riot. “I was just sitting listening and learning and straight away it occurred to me that one of the reasons this had happened was that the prisoners had no voice,” he told me later.

He launched the paper late in 1990 and called it simply Time. The purpose of it he liked to recall, was to, “inform, educate and entertain, just like the BBC”. He changed the name later, after a complaint from the US weekly news title of the same name. Longford’s daughter the novelist Rachel Billington, was recruited early on as a co-editor and contributor and remains to this day a columnist and associate editor. “He was an independent spirit and an exceptional man,” she wrote of McGraw in her May column.

Terry Waite, who had been held captive by terrorists in Beirut from 1987 to 1991, was a friend of McGraw’s and for many years was one of the most popular columnists. “I first met Eric when I was released from captivity,” he says. “He felt that given my experience of incarceration as a hostage, I might be able to make a contribution to Inside Time. I accepted. Eric was a true friend to the friendless and a great humanitarian.”

The paper has thrived and now has 200,000 web users every month and an app that helps prisoners to connect with their families.

But there was much more to McGraw than Inside Time. He was born in Blyth, Northumberland, as a result of a wartime relationship his mother had outside her marriage, and his early years were unpromising. His mother’s husband refused to accept him, and so he was placed into care aged one. He was adopted aged two by Robert and Elizabeth McGraw, but then put back into care at the age of 12 when they divorced.

A bright boy, after school Eric went to the US and completed a degree in social science at the University of Chicago. In 1966 he moved to Sweden to teach in the university city of Örebro. Two years later he returned to the UK and taught at a young offender remand prison and then two technical colleges in Essex. Around that time he met and married Rita Romppanen, who was from Finland. They had two daughters, Kirsten and Kaarina.

In 1974 he was appointed director of Population Concern, a group advocating for access to family planning services. “Every woman should attain freedom from the tyranny of excessive fertility,” he argued.

Following a change in the law, he applied for his birth certificate and discovered he was born Derek Campbell. He met his mother, Edna Campbell, for the first time when he was 30 and found that by then he had eight sisters and brothers, one of whom, his mother told him, “dabbled in politics”. Thirty years later he came across the Labour MP for Blyth, Ronnie Campbell, while listening to questions in parliament. He looked him up and, sure enough, the MP was his brother. An introductory letter led at last to a full and happy family reunion.

By 1985 McGraw had increased the revenue of Population Concern tenfold, enabling it to further support programmes in the developing world. He moved to New York in 1985 as a consultant to the United Nations development programme and presented two short UN films, The World of Five Billion and The Human Race. In 1990 he published Population: The Human Race, with a foreword by the Duke of Edinburgh, and in 1994 he received the Guardian Jerwood award for excellence in the field of social justice.

In the meantime his marriage had ended and during a visit to Russia in 1999 he met Svetlana Miroshnichenko. They married in 2001 and settled in Taunton, Somerset, where in 2003 they opened Svetlana’s, a restaurant and piano bar.

Shortly before he retired from Inside Time in 2015, he won the Longford Trust lifetime achievement award. “It is hard to think of another individual in recent times who has had more of a direct and sustained impact on the everyday life of prisoners in this country,” read part of the judges’ citation. Two years later, in 2017, he was appointed MBE for services to the rehabilitation of prisoners in England and Wales.

Kirsten died in 2006. McGraw is survived by Svetlana and Kaarina.

• Eric James McGraw, campaigner and newspaper founder, born 3 February 1945; died 18 April 2021


Erwin James

The GuardianTramp

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