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Guardian prison correspondent Eric Allison dies aged 79 | The Guardian


Eric Allison, who became the Guardian’s prison correspondent at the age of 60 after spending much of his life in prison, has died. He had recently been diagnosed with secondary bone cancer and was 79 years old.

Allison, who claimed to be the only man to escape from Manchester’s Strangeways prison, joined the Guardian in 2003 after serving several prison sentences for fraud, theft and burglary.

He got the job after responding to a newspaper ad, which said a criminal record was no barrier to applying.

He impressed then-editor Alan Rusbridger with his passion for fighting injustice and his elegant way with words. During his interview, he promised he would go straight in if given the job – a vow he kept throughout his 19-year tenure as Guardian, despite frequent grumblings that his first job was fine. better paid.

In what he called his second career, Allison wrote extensively for the Guardian, exposing the cruelty in the prison system and particularly in young offender facilities.

He struck up a long working partnership and strong friendship with screenwriter Simon Hattenstone, a fellow Mancunian (albeit a Manchester City fan, when Allison was still United). Earlier this year, the pair investigated the number of prisoners who died on remand, and in 2016 they revealed how the government approved brutal restraint techniques that could kill children in prison.

Their work on child abuse at Medway’s secure training center helped secure security giant G4S’s contract to run the children’s prison.

In 2011, the couple’s investigation into sexual abuse at Medomsley Detention Center led to Operation Seabrook, one of the largest abuse investigations in the UK, with over 1,600 former inmates coming forward to report allegations of abuse. Allison and Hattensone won a media award from Amnesty for their work on the story.

Much loved in the Guardian’s Manchester office, where he was based throughout his career as a journalist, Allison loved to reminisce about the good old days when he wasn’t raging against the system. He was particularly proud of escaping Strangeways – now HMP Manchester – using a bogus bail warrant. No one else had ever achieved such a feat, he always claimed.

He had been released from prison when the Strangeways riots took place in 1990, but cheered prisoners on the streets using a megaphone. He later co-authored a book about the protest, which gave him the confidence to believe he could one day get paid to write.

His first conviction came when he was an 11-year-old heavy smoker, although he insisted it was only the first time police caught him. At 14, he was in prison, serving a four-month sentence for stealing a chewing gum machine.

He learned early on that prison in England didn’t work – a fact that dogged him throughout his life as he used his journalism to fight for a system that not only punishes but also rehabilitate.

The juvenile detention center he went to had no positive effect on him, he recalled in an interview to mark the start of his work as a Guardian in 2003: “It was supposed to be a brief violent shock. Never worked. It only made you fitter. Virtually everyone I saw in this detention center in 1957 during my travels through the system. Each of them.

Allison arrived at the Guardian unable to use a computer, having circumvented the technological advances of the 1990s because he was serving his longest term – seven years – for breaking into a bank in Manchester and stealing checks from a worth a million pounds.

This latter job also involved the forgery of Giro checks. He said the counterfeits were so convincing that the government was forced to withdraw the real ones from circulation, because the postal staff could not tell the difference between “ours” and “theirs”.

He had a memory like an atlas of the geography of England, and often claimed to have visited every village large enough for two post offices (it was only worth them if he could commit check fraud in at least two). He loved to walk in the Peak District and was cutesy about his dogs – most recently two Romanian pooches, Nellie, named after his mother, and Prince.

He comes from what he has always called a “very straight family”. Her father, after leaving the army, was a jack of all trades and her mother brought Allison and her three older brothers to their home in Gorton, east Manchester.

Released from prison for the last time a few days before the dawn of the new millennium, Allison first thought of his freedom as a sabbatical from crime. But as his writing career progressed, he felt compelled to stay on the right side of the law. Occasionally, old buddies would try to coax him back to his old ways, but he was determined to live a crime-free life.

Rusbridger said he decided the Guardian needed a prison correspondent because so little was known about what went on behind prison walls.

“It was a crazy idea to hire an ex-con to be the prison correspondent for the Guardian, but Eric was the perfect choice. He had immaculate credentials (16 years in various institutions) and a long experience in “He promised to go straight if he got the Guardian role – although he complained that journalism paid poorly compared to crime (with more stress),” Rusbridger said.

“Over the years he campaigned, reported, advocated and investigated on behalf of the underdogs he knew so well. He has shed constant light on a world where successive governments would rather stay in the dark. The prisoners knew they had a reliable witness on their case.

“I suspect Eric probably wasn’t a world-class bank robber. But he was a class act as an end-of-life journalist and it’s so sad that his unwavering focus on an underreported world has been lost.

Allison became a highly respected authority on prisons and a passionate campaigner against miscarriages of justice. He fervently believed in the innocence of those he cared for, including that of Jeremy Bamber, who is serving a life sentence for killing his adoptive parents, sister and twin boys in 1985.

Hattenstone said of him: “Despite a life of criminal activity, perhaps because of it, he was the most moral man I know. When he saw a miscarriage of justice no one fought like Eric to get it overturned. His job became his life. He would spend months and sometimes years working on cases that never saw the light of day in the press – usually because they were legally too tricky, sometimes because the editors didn’t share our faith. There were times in recent years when he became so obsessed with the Jeremy Bamber case that he could only talk about a few things. Eric was someone you wanted on your side, as a friend, colleague or victim of a miscarriage of justice.

After leaving prison, Allison managed to rent a council house in Gorton, where the Channel 4 show Shameless was soon to be filmed. In an article for the Guardian in 2005, he wrote about his love for the much maligned region. Although he described it as a “garbage dump” whose inhabitants have accumulated more asbos than anywhere else in Manchester, he launched a passionate defense of his neighbours.

Always fighting for the underdog, Allison wrote: “Perhaps perversely the place keeps me healthy angry at the injustice and the way society demonizes inner city youth. There is also little danger, I imagine, of feeling above my station at Gorton.

He is survived by two of his brothers, Walter and Tommy, as well as his daughters, Kerry and Caroline, and many grandchildren.

theguardian Gt

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