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Eric McGraw, campaigner on penal reform who founded the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time – obituary

(Posted on 04/05/21)

Eric McGraw, campaigner on penal reform who founded the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time – obituary

You may have seen the tremendously sad news that our dear friend Eric McGraw has recently died. It was Eric’s idea to establish a charity to help prisoners who claim to be innocent and he was a tireless champion for the difficult work we do. Inside Justice simply would not be here without him. 

Whilst visiting his widow Svetlana, I noticed a board of photographs of him with various famous faces. It encapsulated two wonderful qualities of the man: his humour and his ability to engage support from unlikely quarters for prisoners and prisoners’ rights.  I shall miss him dearly. 
Louise Shorter, Inside Justice Founder and Investigator. 

Eric McGraw Obituary by Peter Stanford in the Daily Telegraph

It is hard to think of another individual in recent times who has had more of a direct and sustained impact on the every day life of prisoners in this country than Eric McGraw, who has died at the age of 76. In 1990, he set up Inside Time as a free newspaper that gave prisoners a voice.  Distributed in every UK jail, today it is an indispensable part of the criminal justice system as a truly independent channel that connects the prisoners, officers, governors, judges and ministers who are among its readers.

It started out as an eight-page quarterly in December 1990. With typical mischief, McGraw called it Time, until the US magazine of the same name threatened legal action.  Its initial print run of 12,000, he later recalled, required plenty of sticky tape to hold page layouts together, plus the assistance of the print-shop manager at HMP Kingston in Portsmouth. 

At the time McGraw was director of the prisoner befriending charity, New Bridge, and the idea of a paper to allow prisoners to air their views and concerns had come to him while attending sessions of Lord Justice Woolf’s 1990 inquiry into the riots at HMP Strangeways. The first issue carried a cover photograph of the protestors on the roof of the Manchester jail, with the headline  “Human Prison of ‘Stink and Filth’”, a quotation from New Bridge’s submission to the Woolf inquiry.  It caused one prison governor to exclude the paper from his prison, and urge other governors to do the same. 

“When the POA (Prison Officers’ Association) banned the paper from one of their conferences – it did us a huge favour,” McGraw reminisced. “Prisoners who had been sceptical of the paper at first [suspecting it was a Prison Service stooge], now eagerly welcomed it. The fact that prison officials were so against it gave it immediate acceptance and respect from the general prisoner population.”

He didn’t allow such approval to distract him from the need to keep the prison service on side, too, in order to get the paper to its intended readership. He walked that delicate line with great skill and ingenuity. The bespoke formula he developed for his captive audience largely continues to be the hallmark of Inside Time to this day. 

To convey its “non-official” status, there were cartoons and off-beat picture captions that reflected McGraw’s own wacky and often slightly surreal sense of humour (Spike Milligan was a friend).  To serve prisoners, the opening pages were full of their letters and articles. Then came big-name columnists he attracted, including the novelist Rachel Billington, ex-hostage Terry Waite, and former prisoner and pop impresario, Jonathan King.  And finally there were contributions from expert writers, prison officials and others involved in the penal reform movement.

What sustained it all was McGraw’s hard work, his strong connection with his core audience, and his charisma and ability as a fund-raiser.  Inside Time grew into a 54-page, self-financing colour monthly, lively, challenging, entertaining and respected by everyone. So successful did its commercial side become, run by McGraw’s friend and colleague, John Roberts, that it spawned Inside Poetry – published collections of verse that prisoners had submitted to the paper, edited by Billington - and Inside Justice, launched in 2010, to assist victims of miscarriages of justice.

In 2002 he left New Bridge, under whose auspices Inside Time operated (and remains the beneficiary of any profits it generates), to focus full-time on running the paper as a commercial company. He also found space and energy for 14 years to be front-of-house in the restaurant and piano bar he jointly ran in Taunton with his second, Russian-born wife, Svetlana, whom he had met in 1999 on a visit to her homeland.  

In 1994 he had received the Guardian Jarwood Award for excellence in the field of social justice. After he retired from Inside Time in 2015, his contribution was recognised with an MBE and the annual Lifetime Achievement Award of the Longford Trust.

Born in Blyth, Northumbria in 1945 as Derek Campbell, his mother, Edna, was forced to give him up for adoption when her husband, the father of her other seven children, refused to have him in the family home because the baby was the result of a relationship outside the marriage. It took McGraw almost 40 years to reconnect with her, tracing her through his original birth certificate, and another 20 – by which time Edna’s husband had died – to meet and be welcomed into his birth family that included the former miner and Labour MP for Blyth Valley, Ronnie Campbell.  In 2006, the two made a short television documentary about their reunion.

When he was 12 his adoptive parents in Middlesbrough, Robert and Elizabeth McGraw, divorced and he was put in care.  Once he had completed his school education in Britain, he moved to the United States and spent several years there, including completing a degree at Chicago University. 

In 1966 he moved back to Europe to teach in the university city of Örebro. The following year he was back in the UK, first as a teacher in a remand centre, then later in two technical colleges in Essex.  In 1974, he was appointed as director of Population Concern, an organisation that was set up by, among others, the Family Planning Association. 

In his 11 years in post, he increased its revenue tenfold to support its programmes in women’s health and sex education in the developing world.  In 1985, he moved to New York to work as a consultant to the United Nations Development Programme for two years, writing and presenting two short UN films, The World of Five Billion and The Human Race.

The issue of over-population remained close to his heart. In 1990 he published a book, Population: The Human Race, with a foreword by the Duke of Edinburgh (the two had struck up a bond, McGraw liked to recount, after a Buckingham Palace reception when Prince Philip appeared in the car park to help him get his car started). In recent years, he returned to the subject of population in a number of letters published by national newspapers.

It was, however, the cause of prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation that inspired this talented, witty, visionary but sometimes enigmatic man for most of his working life.  The continuing success of his creation, Inside Time, now with 60,000 readers, 100,000 regular visitors to its website, and an app launched recently to mark its 30th anniversary to keep prisoners’ families in the loop, is testament to his genius.

McGraw was married twice. He had two daughters by his first early marriage which ended in divorce, Kirsten, who died in 2006, and Kaarina.  He is survived by Svetlana, Kaarina, and his three grandchildren, Nicholas, Alexander and Chloe. 

Eric McGraw, newspaper founder and prison reformer. born February 3, 1945, died April 18, 2021. 

Criminal Justice Alliance, Registered with Fundraising Regulator, Member Organisation of Chartered Institute of Fundraising