Eric Allison, Prison Reporter Who Knew the Beat All Too Well, Dies at 79
Eric Allison, a former career criminal who after his final incarceration in England made a sharp pivot when he took a job writing about prison life for The Guardian, where he exposed abuses of inmates for nearly 20 years, died on Nov. 2 in Manchester. He was 79.
His daughter Kerry Allison said the cause was secondary bone cancer.
Mr. Allison led a life of crime for about 50 years, spending nearly one-third of that time in prisons for bank robbery, theft, forgery, counterfeiting and fraud. He reveled in the excitement and the risk-taking of the life.
“You see, I chose to become a criminal, volunteered if you like,” he wrote in The Guardian last year. “I was steeped in crime, enjoyed my work and willingly signed up for the adage: ‘If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.’ Accordingly, when mistakes occurred at work and I ended up in the slammer, I regarded it as an occupational hazard.”
But his focus changed in 2003. After completing a sentence for fraud and while looking for a new direction, he read an advertisement in The Guardian for a prison reporting job. The newspaper was seeking a former convict to replace a double murderer who had been 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 paper’s editor in chief at the time, said in a phone interview.
Mr. Allison wrote a 500-word essay and submitted his résumé, which listed his prison stays. He didn’t think he would be hired, only that he might tell the paper about the ills of the British prison system.
The first four interviewees did not impress Mr. Rusbridger. And Mr. Allison didn’t overwhelm him at first, either.
“He looked sort of worn down and defeated and chain smoking,” Mr. Rusbridger recalled. “But as soon as he started talking he seemed full of curiosity and fight.”
He hired him, with a warning. “I said, ‘Look, Eric,’ we’re taking a bit of risk because if anyone found out that you’re still doing crime, it would be tremendously embarrassing for us, so you have to promise to go straight,’” Mr. Rusbridger recounted. “And he gave me that promise and kept it.”
Mr. Allison already had a talent for writing that he had honed in prison in articles for Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, a newspaper published by the Revolutionary Communist Group.
And during a stretch of freedom, he had collaborated with Nicki Jameson on a book, “Strangeways: A Serious Disturbance” (1995), about the squalid conditions at Manchester Prison, once known as Strangeways, that led to nearly monthlong riots in 1990.
In his 19 years of reporting for The Guardian, Mr. Allison built trust among prisoners, former inmates and their families.
“His phone was always on,” Kerry Allison said in an interview. “Because the people he was advocating for were often quite desperate. He spent time on the phone with their crying moms.”
Mr. Allison’s reporting created a disturbing portrait of British prisons as caldrons of often unjust punishment.
One exposé, about pregnant prisoners being taken on long trips in what inmates called “sweat boxes” — vehicles with hard seats and no seatbelts — led to a change in that practice. His work with Simon Hattenstone, a features reporter and frequent collaborator, on the abuse of children at the Medway training center led to the loss of a security company’s contract to run the prison. Their investigation of sexual abuse at Medomsley Detention Center prompted an inquiry in which more than 1,000 former prisoners came forward with accusations of abuse.
In 2013, Mr. Allison and Mr. Hattenstone won an Amnesty International media award for human rights journalism for their Medomsley investigation. 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 dying in custody while being tried or awaiting trial; one killed himself while on suicide watch.
In their reporting they discovered 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 mates from the past and had amazing contacts,” Mr. Hattenstone said in an email.
Mr. Allison worked with charities and had been a trustee for the Prisoners’ Advice Service, which fields prisoners’ phone calls asking for help. “He was an activist in his job and personal life,” Lubia Begum-Rob, the director of the service, said in a phone interview. “It was his raison d’être.”
Eric Allison was born on Dec. 2, 1942, in Manchester. His father, Alfred, was a factory engineer, and his mother, Nellie (Welsby) Allison, was a homemaker who held part-time jobs.
Eric got into trouble early. At 11, he and two friends broke into a neighbor’s house and stole coins from a jar.
“I was always pretty anti-authority,” he told The Justice Gap, a law and justice magazine, in 2014. “If somebody told me to do something, I’d go out of my way to not do it.”
He had a few legitimate jobs over the years, like waiting on tables, but he always returned to crime. In prison, his complaining about abuses sometimes landed him in solitary confinement, and he was known to help other inmates in their efforts to be released.
The Guardian job 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 once served time, believing it to be a racist institution.
The column angered John Podmore, the prison’s warden at the time, who confronted Mr. Allison when they met unexpectedly at another prison.
“I’m tall and bulky, and I leaned over him in a semi-threatening manner and said, ‘Thanks for the kick in the bollocks,’” Mr. Podmore recalled in a phone interview. “He said, ‘You’re welcome,’ then ignored me.”
But Mr. Allison acknowledged that he had been brusque and called Mr. Podmore the next day to arrange a visit to Brixton. He talked to prisoners, staff members and Mr. Podmore and wrote a positive article about improvements at the prison.
“I’m a skeptic, but I was genuinely 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 separated.
Helen Pidd, the North of England editor for The Guardian, said that Mr. Allison had empathized with prisoners who had been beaten and suffered miscarriages of justice.
“He despaired about the system and about policy, but he just kept plugging away,” she said by phone. “He was so tenacious. He just never gave up.”