As a child, there were two things Eric Allison was good at. The first was composition, a skill he inherited from his mother. "She wrote a very good letter, my mother," he says. The second, which he would make a career out of, was a talent not shared by anyone else in his family and which only came to light as a result of his being bullied. As a child, Allison had a bad stutter (that's why he talks so much now, he says, to make up for lost time). He had a squint, too, and the squinting, stuttering Allison redeemed himself first by fighting, then by stealing. "Bang, straight off, it gives you status. People respect you. I enjoyed it, no question. Strong buzz from it. When a job went really nicely, you thought, yes!"
Allison, 60, joins the Guardian today as the paper's prison correspondent, with a brief to write across the paper on penal policy and conditions inside the country's jails. He writes with some authority: he has served a total of 15 years in prison, mainly for theft. (The News of the World once accused him of supplying passports to the IRA, but it was false. "It was a purely criminal enterprise, no terrorist dimension. I got 18 months, fair enough.") He has seen the inside of, among others, Strangeways, Brixton, Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth, Durham, Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool prisons. There is no such thing as a criminal, he says - "73,000 people in prison, 73,000 different reasons they're there. And there's no such thing as an ex-criminal. Unless it's one of these God-botherers."
When we meet in the Guardian canteen, Allison has just come from an IT tutorial. "I sent an email this morning entirely under my own steam," he says. "I've started getting into the internet, but it still baffles me." Allison missed out on the technological advances of the 90s because he was serving a seven-year stretch - his longest - for breaking into a bank in Manchester and stealing cheques worth more than half a million pounds. In many ways, he says, he owes prison a lot. He was helped by some good people in the system and blames no one for his offending but himself. But at the same time he has an understanding of where, from the point of view of the inmate, things aren't working. He has a historical overview of life inside that goes back 40 years.
Allison served his first sentence while still a teenager. It was 1957 and he had been caught stealing. "When I was young, I thought the people who ran the corner shop were rich. Of course now I know they weren't, and I regret that deeply." He came from what he calls a "very straight family". His father, after leaving the army, was a jack of all trades and his mother brought Allison and his three brothers up in their home in Manchester. The detention centre he went to had no improving effect on him. "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."
When Allison got out, to please his mother, he got a job as a waiter and stuck at it for five years. At first, he loved the job. "Well, food! Astonishing food! I couldn't wait to get to work in the morning. It helped me to get rid of my stammer. But after about five years, I thought I'd rather be on the other side of the table, sitting down. So I made a conscious decision to go back to it."
"It" was crime. "Not wishing to blow my own trumpet," he says, "but I was good at it." In which case, I ask, how did he come to spend 15 years inside? "Occupational hazard. If you're a carpenter and you make a mistake, you get a sore thumb. If you're a criminal and you make a mistake, you go to prison. And rightly so. That never bothered me. I'd like to have done less time, but I could've done more time."
He was not, he admits, an easy prisoner during the early years. He used to protest against regimes he thought unfair by the usual means of trashing his cell. He was enraged by the treatment meted out to vulnerable prisoners. Sticking up for "nonces" was an unfashionable position to take, since it was assumed that he sympathised with their crimes. But Allison hated bullying and besides, he says, all that one gains by attacking sex offenders is the guarantee that they will never reform.
"It still happens in bad prisons - officers shouting, 'Nonce coming through', and everyone piles in. The guy's in the bath and they all steam in with boiling water. 'Nonce in the bath,' shouts the officer and bang. The other prisoners think, 'The screws are all right, we're all in this together.' Nonsense. You're doing their job for them. It's divide and rule. I fought against it long and hard because all it does is give the VPs [vulnerable prisoners] an excuse to victimise themselves."
It is his great regret that during the Strangeways prison riot in 1990, which he broadly supported, a VP was attacked by the rioters and later died of his injuries. Allison was out of prison at the time, but would stand in the road with a megaphone to shout encouragement at the men on the roof. It was the beginning of his career as a campaigner. He had realised a decade before that there were more constructive ways of protesting than trashing one's cell.
After contributing a few letters about his diet to Vegetarian magazine (he doesn't eat meat, but has "crept back to fish"), Allison realised that he got a similar buzz from writing as he did from stealing. "Once I started protesting through writing, I built up a network of people and the screws had to be careful, because I had backing on the outside. They've driven people to suicide. But they'd never drive me to suicide, because I wanted to know what was going to happen next."
There are subtle ways of bringing a prisoner down, he says - ripping up his letters, moving him to a different prison the night before he has a visit from his family, and "forgetting" to inform them. "It's called winding-up, and it's a real skill. Some of them are top-of-the-tree, premiership wind-up merchants."
But things are getting better, says Allison, particularly since the Prison Officers Association, a breeding ground for extremists, lost its stranglehold in the prisons. A new generation of prison officers is coming up that respects the inmates. "I was in a cat C prison for my last sentence, which used to be called Grisly Risley, and I'd been at war with them over the years. But there'd been a change. I left there after two years feeling very positive about the place."
What about the victims? "The most important thing with the victims is that the person who's offended against them, stops offending. You've got to treat them with fairness and humanity."
A friend showed Allison the advert in the Guardian - ordinarily he never reads the job ads, not having worked for 40 years. He was already a fan of Erwin James's column. "He writes with compassion and great warmth and understanding of human nature." And there were issues he wanted to look into, journalistically, for example, if prisoners charities such as the Howard League and Nacro are too far removed from the people they're supposed to be helping, and the extent to which racism is alive in the prison system. The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, describes Allison's new role like this: "We don't know enough about what goes on inside our prisons. Erwin James's columns have given us a unique insight. Eric's role is to complement this. With reporting. And by giving voice to serving prisoners." And so a new chapter of his life begins.
A couple of weeks ago, Allison rang his family to tell them that, at 60, he is starting a new career. "I've gone into journalism," he said, to which his grown-up daughter Caroline replied, "fancy that to swallow a cat." His brother Walter, meanwhile, a very upright member of the community, paused to digest the unlikely news. "You've gone by the scenic route then," he said.
· Eric Allison will write periodically in all parts of the paper. Erwin James will continue to appear weekly.