Eric Allison obituary

Career criminal who went on to become the Guardian’s prisons correspondent and a campaigner for penal reform

Eric Allison, who has died aged 79, had two careers, both profitable in their own way. For 50 years he was a dedicated criminal; a fraudster, burglar and bank robber. For the last 19 years of his life, he was the Guardian’s prisons correspondent – every bit as devoted to exposing injustice as he had been to screwing the system when a criminal.

Eric came from a family of “straight-goers” – Alf, his father, was tiny in size and mighty in discipline, his mother Nellie (Ellen) adored him despite his lawless ways, and three brothers who would not have dreamed of committing a crime. But Eric was made of different stuff. He never made excuses – he loved the buzz, the danger, the camaraderie, the wins. He was not so keen on the losses, though he never complained about serving time for a crime he had committed. A fair cop was a fair cop.

He started young. At the age of 11 Eric discovered that he could break into his neighbours’ homes through a gap in the attic between each house. He and two friends targeted one family because they had a television and, so they thought, must be wealthy. The boys were disappointed to discover there was no hidden fortune but did come across a jar filled with pennies, shillings and even half crowns. They pocketed it and scarpered back through the attics.

One accomplice bought a pair of flippers with his ill-gotten gains. His father believed something was up as soon as he spotted them. When the boy said he had borrowed them from Eric, the father knew something was amiss. The Allisons could never afford flippers. The boy confessed, and Eric and the other two were frogmarched to the police station where his friends explained that Eric was the mastermind, and they had just gone along with it. Eric was the only one to receive a criminal record.

He grew up in Gorton, a working-class area of Manchester, where he lived throughout his life, except when serving time (16 years altogether) or on the run (roughly the same). He loved Gorton. “Proper people,” as he would say. Eric divided the world into “proper people” (the supreme compliment) and “the others”.

At 14, he received his first custodial sentence for stealing a bubble-gum machine – three months at Foston Hall detention centre in Derbyshire. Eric, tiny, slight, and with a bad stutter, had been warned to call prison officers sir. But his stutter got the better of him on his first night inside. He could not get the sir out. The officer promptly punched him in the nose in front of the police. This incident made him determined to fight for abused children in custody.

Eric briefly earned an honest crust. He saw a job for a “common waiter” and believed he was perfectly qualified because he was common. He had misread the advert which was for a commis waiter but got the job nevertheless. After a while he got itchy fingers, and returned to crime.

He specialised in fraud and robbery. Eric was an expert forger. He was not one for bigging himself up, but he did delight in telling friends that he had produced counterfeit giro cheques of such high quality that the government was forced to issue a new design. He said that if a village or town in Britain had at least two post offices (to make it worth his while), he would have done business there. He was once captured on the BBC’s Crimewatch programme running from the scene dressed as a woman. The team had thought it would be more convincing if he and his partner entered the property as a couple.

Eric took his career in crime seriously. In the memoir he was writing at the time of his death, he documented the incredible detail that went into planning a break-in at Barclays Bank in St Ann’s Square, Manchester. Eric was, as usual, the project manager. When the gang discovered they couldn’t break into the safe, they gathered information that enabled them to forge and cash two cheques for a combined value of £1m.

For many years he made a good living from crime, though he cannot have been quite as deft as he thought considering the number of times he was caught. His longest and last sentence was seven years, for the bank job and the giros (which, according to the prosecution, had netted £1,140,869)

Despite his size, Eric was tough. In prison, he would take anyone on or call anybody out who was acting unfairly. Over the years, he helped many fellow prisoners – with letters home, literacy and legal battles when they believed they had suffered a miscarriage of justice. He was bolshie and outspoken, and spent a considerable amount of time in solitary.

In 1981 Eric married the mother of his two daughters, Kerry and Caroline, whom he adored even though he missed most of their childhood. He wrote regularly and they visited him in prison. At times, the girls believed they had a closer relationship with their father than many of their schoolmates had with fathers who weren’t locked up. At other times, they resented him.

In her mid-teens, Caroline wrote him a letter saying he was a “selfish bastard”. It stung – he knew it was true. Eventually his wife had had enough, and they split up, though they never divorced. He remained on good terms with her to the end, and was an active, much-loved presence in the lives of his children and grandchildren in later years.

Eric escaped from a number of prisons, most famously Strangeways by forging his own bail warrant. To his regret, he was not inside when prisoners rioted at Strangeways. He supported the activists from the outside and went on to write a book about the riots with his friend Nicki Jameson, Strangeways 1990: A Serious Disturbance (1994).

Experience taught him that jail rarely benefited prisoners. It was punitive rather than rehabilitative, and often turned first-time criminals into recidivists. He met up with virtually all of “the class of ’57” from Foston Hall when serving time in later years. “So much for the short, sharp shock,” he would say. He spent much of his time in prison campaigning for a more effective system, writing letters to the Guardian and articles for Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, the newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Group.

Eric was nicknamed Eric the Red, partly because he supported Manchester United but more because he was a lifelong socialist. When United were taken over by the American businessman Malcolm Glazer, a disaffected Allison defected to the startup club FC United.

In 2003, he applied for a job as the Guardian’s first prisons correspondent. He had never worked as a professional journalist, but the then editor, Alan Rusbridger, was taken with him. Eric complained regularly, and with good cause, that journalism was less well paid and more stressful than his previous career. On the plus side, it meant he was now being paid for saying his piece rather than being put in segregation.

He dedicated himself to writing about injustice in the prison system, whether it be women jailed for petty crimes, abuse by guards in children’s prisons or restraint techniques that could result in death. After he reported on pregnant women being transported in “sweat boxes” (vehicles used to take prisoners from one secure area to another), the government announced that in future pregnant prisoners would travel by taxi.

Eric was a proud activist journalist. He sat on the boards of numerous charities that campaigned for prisoners’ rights; he spoke frequently at events about the need to imprison fewer people and create a more humane system for those who were jailed; he supported any number of families who had unfairly lost loved ones to prison. It was exhausting and often thankless work. He rarely took holidays.

Eric was on call all the time to listen to the woes of those who sought his help. This was by no means confined to prisons. He managed a football team for young people in Gorton, helped children who were heading in the wrong direction, and loved mentoring young journalists, especially if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Allison always supported the underdog – literally. The last two of his many mutts, Prince and Nellie, were unloved Romanian street dogs till he took them in. As with children, he taught them manners, respect and how to love. He described his home, where he lived with the dogs, as part-kennel, part-office.

In 2007 he and I were paired together to report on the inquest into the death of Adam Rickwood, a 14-year-old boy who took his own life after being physically abused. We became the closest of friends (family, he would say) and worked as a team until he died.

Our 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. Our 2011 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. Nearly all our stories came from Eric’s brilliant contacts, who were as loyal to him as he was to them.

There were many apparent miscarriages of justices he was still hoping to help overturn. He was convinced that the case of Jeremy Bamber, convicted for murdering five family members (his adoptive parents, his sister and her twin boys), was one such. He believed that the initial investigation had been botched in numerous ways, and that it was only a matter of time before Bamber would be released.

Eric’s last great escape was from hospital. He insisted on going home against doctors’ wishes, and was “on a high” spending his final days with Kerry and Caroline, and Nellie and Prince. He hoped to write a diary “about popping my clogs” for the Guardian, was planning his first ever birthday party, and desperately wanted to finish his memoirs. It wasn’t to be, though he has left enough for his family and many friends to tidy up and put the finishing touches to.

He always said journalists should remain outside the “cosy club” and it is to his credit that there was never any danger of him joining it.

Eric is survived by his wife, daughters, five grandchildren and two of his brothers, Walter and Tommy.

• Eric Allison, journalist, born 2 December 1942; died 2 November 2022


Simon Hattenstone

The GuardianTramp

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