Eric Allison, prison reporter who knew the beat all too well, dies at 79
Eric Allison, a former career criminal who, after his last incarceration in England, made a turning point when he took a job writing about prison life for The Guardian, where he exposed inmate abuse for nearly 20, died on November 2 in Manchester. He was 79 years old.
Her daughter Kerry Allison said the cause was secondary bone cancer.
Mr. Allison led a life of crime for around 50 years, spending almost a third of that time in prison for bank robbery, theft, forgery, forgery and fraud. He reveled in the excitement and risk-taking of life.
“See, I chose to become a criminal, volunteer if you will,” he wrote in The Guardian last year. “I was steeped in crime, loved my job, and willingly bought into the adage, ‘If you can’t make time, don’t commit crime.’ Therefore, when mistakes happened at work and I ended up in the slammer, I considered it a job hazard.
But his focus changed in 2003. After serving time for fraud and while looking for a new direction, he read an advert in The Guardian for a job as a journalist in prison. The newspaper was looking for a former convict to replace a double murderer who was writing a column under a pseudonym.
“I thought, how can you find someone who could write about prisons who knew it from the inside?” Alan Rusbridger, the newspaper’s editor at the time, said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Allison wrote a 500-word essay and submitted his resume, which listed his time in prison. He didn’t think he would be hired, only that he could tell the newspaper about the evils of the British prison system.
The first four people interviewed did not impress Mr. Rusbridger. And Mr. Allison didn’t overwhelm him at first either.
“He looked worn and defeated and chain-smoked,” Mr Rusbridger recalled. “But as soon as he started talking, he seemed full of curiosity and a fight.”
He hired her, with a warning. “I said, ‘Look, Eric, we’re taking a bit of a risk because if anyone finds out that you’re still committing a crime, it would be extremely embarrassing for us, so you have to promise to go straight,'” he said. said Mr. , says Rusbridger. “And he gave me that promise and kept it.”
Mr. Allison already had a talent for writing which he had honed in prison in articles for Fight racism! Fight imperialism!a newspaper published by the Revolutionary Communist Group.
And during a period of freedom, he had collaborated with Nicki Jameson on a book, “Strangeways: A Serious Disturbance” (1995), about the squalid conditions at Manchester Prison, formerly known as Strangeways, which led to nearly month-long riots in 1990.
During his 19 years of reporting for The Guardian, Mr Allison built trust between prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.
“His phone was always on,” Kerry Allison said in an interview. “Because the people he defended were often desperate. He spent time on the phone with their crying mothers.
Mr Allison’s reporting painted a disturbing portrait of UK prisons as cauldrons of often unjust punishment.
A presentation, on pregnant prisoners being taken for long drives in what inmates called “sweat boxes” – vehicles with hard seats and no seat belts – led to a change in this practice. Her work with prominent reporter and frequent contributor Simon Hattenstone on child abuse in Medway Training Center led to the loss of the contract with a security company to manage the prison. Their investigation into sexual abuse at Medomsley Detention Center sparked an investigation in which more than 1,000 former prisoners brought charges of abuse.
In 2013, Mr. Allison and Mr. Hattenstone won an Amnesty International media award for Human Rights Journalism for their investigation of Medomsley. And last month, after his death, Mr Allison won the Outstanding Journalism Award from the Criminal Justice Alliance after teaming up again with Mr. Hattenstone to report on prisoners who died in custody while on trial or awaiting trial; one committed suicide under suicide watch.
In their reporting, they found that nearly two-thirds of prisoners in England and Wales who died in custody over the past decade had at some point been cited as being at risk of suicide and self-harm.
“What was interesting about Eric was that he still kept all his criminal friends from the past and had amazing contacts,” Mr Hattenstone said in an email.
Mr. Allison worked with charities and had been a director of the Inmate Counseling Service, who answers phone calls from prisoners asking for help. “He was an activist in his work and his personal life,” said Lubia Begum-Rob, the director of the service, in a telephone interview. “It was his raison d’etre.
Eric Allison was born on December 2, 1942 in Manchester. Her father, Alfred, was a factory engineer and her mother, Nellie (Welsby) Allison, was a homemaker who worked part-time jobs.
Eric got in trouble early. When he was 11, he and two friends broke into a neighbor’s house and stole coins from a jar.
“I have always been rather anti-authority” he told The Justice Gapa law and justice magazine, in 2014. “If someone told me to do something, I would do my best not to do it.”
He’s had a few legitimate jobs over the years, like waiting tables, but he’s always gone back to crime. In prison, his complaints of abuse sometimes landed him in solitary confinement, and he was known to help other inmates in their efforts to be released.
The Guardian’s work gave him a platform from which to report on the brutality and poor conditions in prisons. In one column he condemned conditions at Brixton prison in London, where he had previously served a sentenceconsidering it a racist institution.
The column angered John Podmore, the prison warden at the time, who confronted Mr Allison when they unexpectedly met at another prison.
“I’m tall and portly, and I leaned over him in a semi-threatening way and said, ‘Thanks for the kick in the bollocks,'” Mr Podmore recalled in an interview telephone. “He said, ‘You’re welcome,’ then ignored me.”
But Mr Allison admitted he had been abrupt and called Mr Podmore the next day to arrange a visit to Brixton. He spoke to prisoners, staff members and Mr. Podmore and wrote a positive article about the improvements made to the prison.
“I’m skeptical, but I was really impressed” Mr. Allison wrote in The Guardian.
In addition to his daughter Kerry, he is survived by another daughter, Caroline Allison; five grandchildren; his brothers, Walter and Tommy; and his wife (she did not want her name disclosed), from whom he was estranged.
Helen Pidd, North England editor for The Guardian, said Mr Allison sympathized with prisoners who had been beaten and suffered miscarriages of justice.
“He was desperate for the system and the politics, but he just kept plugging in,” she said over the phone. “He was so tenacious. He just never gave up.