Speaking at Greenbelt festival in August, former prisoner, journalist and writer Erwin James delivered a challenging and thought provoking talk on his experience of life inside and reflections on UK penal system.
Key to Erwin’s message was a call for increased public awareness and involvement. Highlighting the tendency of to publicise atrocities while hiding from the challenge of rehabilitation, Erwin stressed how sentences rarely equate to life and therefore preparing prisoners for life outside of prison need be of pressing concern to us all. Former convicts are our future neighbours; who do we want living next door?
Statistics of post-prison re-offence are widely available as are figures showing the extent of overcrowding. Both of this point to the urgency of public debate over the purpose and practice of prison, and the need to buck the trend of repeat offending.
Erwin’s talk captivated the audience as he drew on personal experience of life behind bars and from his post-prison involvement in reform of the penal system. Following his mother’s death while he was aged seven, Erwin was sleeping rough to escape from his abusive father when he received his first criminal conviction aged ten. After being caught breaking into a sweet shop Erwin was taken into care where he stayed till 15. Erwin spoke of persistent knocks to his self worth giving an account of when he pleaded to the policeman not to tell his father as, ‘he will kill me’, to which the policeman responded, ‘but you deserve to be dead’.
On leaving care Erwin drifted from sofa to sofa, relying on extended relations and shifting between various precarious jobs. He often ending up sleeping rough and became increasingly involved in petty and occasionally violent crime. His life on the periphery ricocheted from one disaster to the next until he was eventually sentenced for murder.
Erwin’s well balanced yet critical account of life behind bars highlighted both the problems and the potential in the British penal system. Highly aware that his own course through prison was the exception not the norm, Erwin spoke of how in 1984 he faced a life sentence as an uneducated, troubled and disenfranchised individual yet left prison in 2004 as both a graduate and a journalist. Erwin’s first article was published in The Independent in 1994, the start to a career which was simultaneously encouraged and discouraged by prison officers. Overcoming multiple setbacks, by 2000 Erwin was publishing a weekly column in The Guardian. A collection of these came to form his first book, A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook, published in 2003. Yet while Erwin was able to turn his life around above and beyond his own expectations, the same cannot be said for the majority of his fellow inmates. Erwin gave accounts of many cases of suicide he’d seen during his 20 years inside, and the difficulties of building the self worth so critical to cultivating a life after prison. For Erwin, acting as prison scribe gave him a positive role in his harsh environment and an outlet for his creativity. For many others, overcoming the weight of negative formative experiences and the reality of prison life was less of a possibility.
Following his release in 2004 Erwin has dedicated his time to penal reform working as a trustee for the Prison Reform Trust and The Alternatives to Violence Project Britain, and as a patron to the charities CREATE, Blue Sky and The Reader Organisation.
Listening to Erwin’s captivating speech left me challenged to engage with these questions both so relevant yet so often eclipsed from our daily lives. Eager to find out more, I purchased A Life Inside which has proved an equally engaging read that I would well recommend.
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