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Writer and ex-lifer Erwin James calls for prison reform

Erwin James, who served 20 years for murder, talked at the Crime Story festival in Newcastle

Erwin James, ex-lifer who is now a writer and campaigner for prison reform
Erwin James, ex-lifer who is now a writer and campaigner for prison reform

One woman, after hearing Erwin James speak at a literary event, told him: “I really struggle with you.” He relates the incident himself, acknowledging: “I’ve got detractors.”

In 1984, James was convicted with another man on two counts of murder, to which both had pleaded not guilty. He served 20 years of a life sentence and now, aged 57, is a writer whose specialist subject is life inside and the need for prison reform.

He is in Newcastle today as one of the expert speakers at Crime Story, a weekend festival dedicated to crime fiction and aimed at writers who want their stories to have the ring of truth. The ex-lifer will share his insider knowledge with leading figures from across the criminal justice system.

North East crime writer Ann Cleeves will set the ball rolling with the opening paragraphs of a new murder yarn. A body has been discovered. What would happen next in real life and how would things progress from there?

In Erwin James, those attending the festival will have in their midst not a fictional killer but one who has done the crime and served his time.

They will find, if my conversation with him is anything to go by, a soft-spoken man with no evident trace of anger or self-pity. He doesn’t want others to pity him, either. “I deserve all I got,” he says. “I got what was coming to me and I’ve got no complaints about my personal prison experience.

“My complaint is that when I was in there, society was being told by the tabloid media that prison was like a holiday camp and pensioners were starving while prisoners were having slap-up meals and watching Sky TV.

“I deserved to be in there but society deserves to be told the truth. I was in prison with every type of offender you can imagine – robbers, murderers, paedophiles – and they weren’t all having fun and enjoying themselves. It was a place full of misery and pain. People tried to get by.

“I don’t want to see most of them ever again but most of these people will come out one day. As long as we have a service that lets people out, we have to try to understand what happens when they’re inside.”

James was “27 or 28” when he was sent to prison. He says that having been convicted, he expected nothing. If the death sentence had been in existence, he would have accepted it as his due.

Possibly, for some, it would have been a welcome release. James recalls how people would always comment on how quiet it used to be in the lifers’ wing. “Prison officers loved it because it was so peaceful. They never had any trouble.

“But the psychological warfare that went on there was intense. It was quiet on the surface but underneath there was a lot of fear and stress. In every part of society there’s a hierarchy and it was the same in prison.

“Generally, people know what you’ve done inside and knowledge is power. They’d tell sex offienders before they were locked up, ‘Just say you robbed a Post Office in Wales’ or something. But there’s a lot of violence directed at sex offenders in prison.

“There’s a real hypocrisy inside. People say, ‘I might have done a bad thing but I’m not as bad as him’.”

James is currently writing a book about his life before prison. It is called Redeemable and is due to be published next spring by Bloomsbury.

“I was dysfunctional,” he says of his childhood years. “My mother was killed in a car crash and my dad became a drunk. There was a lot of violence. I left home when I was 10. I was on the streets running about and ended up in a children’s home.

“I was picked on by other kids and I started getting into fights. My dad was a drunk but he seemed to be popular, so by the time I left the home at 15 I was drinking. Some kids turn to crime and get labelled ‘Rat Boy’ or ‘Safari Boy’. I’ve got grandchildren now and I’m totally anti the physical chastisement of children.”

People who stick up for the prison system might point to Erwin James, seemingly a reformed character, as an example of why it works.

He says otherwise. Asked what he would do if he were in charge of prisons, he replies without hesitation: “I’d start to close down the prisons one by one. I’d have a five to 10-year plan and I’d close them down and then reopen them with a new culture of positivity and enablement.

“You can’t help everybody but the current prison culture is absolutely corrosive. Rather than have 50 prisoners mixing on landings, I’d have smaller units where people can mix. In the current system you have lots of dysfunctional strangers mixing. You’re not kind or polite; you’re scared and on edge all the time.”

He says it was during his first year inside, when he was locked up for 24 hours a day in Wandsworth, that he started thinking deeply about his preduicament.

“I started thinking about how I’d become what I’d become. I didn’t feel I’d been born bad. I didn’t have an overwhelming desire to hurt people, but I’d hurt a lot of people. That was my first motivation for writing.”

James says he responded well to education in prison. “But I stopped going because I started to enjoy achieving things. A psychologist came to see me and I said that I’d stopped going because I didn’t deserve it.

“The psychologist said, ‘Stop the self-pity. You owe it to your victims to do the best with the life you’ve got left’. At that time I wasn’t thinking of becoming a Guardian columnist or writing books or going to the Hay Festival (the literary event where James has been a speaker this week).”

He will urge the crime writers he meets this weekend to portray the perpetrators as people rather than stereotypes. They got it right in The Shawshank Redemption, he reckons, and Porridge was spot on about the people, even if it did miss out the fear, the violence and the drugs.

To the lady who struggles with him, he said that he, too, struggles every day with what he did. “You never escape from the prison of your mind,” he says. “I do think about the people connected to my victims and I’ve had some contact by email. If they want to talk, they’ve got my details.”

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