Erwin James, a double murderer, served 20 years in prison – a spell that he decided he must make meaningful. Now working as a professional journalist, he urges other inmates to try to transform their lives to the benefit of themselves and society
Erwin James served 20 years behind bars before being released in 2004. His mother died in a car crash when he was seven and his father was a violent alcoholic. James was taken into care. Aged 10, he committed his first crime and collected a further 50 convictions. He murdered two men, and was jailed at the age of 27. With the encouragement of a psychologist, James began writing for national newspapers while inside, and started to believe he was redeemable.
“Was I born bad? I became fascinated by this question. Sitting inside a prison cell for the first time, with a bed, bucket, and three pairs of bars on the window, things were incredibly bleak. I was confronted with the very worst parts of myself.
We have base instincts as humans and in some of us – for whatever reason – enmity escapes. We lose control: we hurt and we cause damage and pain. My advice to anybody in that sort of situation is to figure out why it happened and make sure it never happens again. Whatever your sentence, short or long, forge a path that will give you some meaning. The most important thing, whatever your circumstances, is not to think ‘poor me’. Society demands you to be here. While you’re in prison, your body is captive, but your mind is free – free to make the right choices.
Give stories, not stuff
We need cultural and social attitudes to shift towards rehabilitation. This isn’t so that prisoners have a good time, it’s to make society safer. We need environments where good things can happen, enriching experiences, so that when a prisoner comes out and becomes somebody’s neighbour, he or she will be a good neighbour.
Staffing is the main challenge: we’ve lost a third of the prison staff – 7,000 people – over the past four years. Imagine a school losing a third of teachers, or losing a third of employees from a company. Staff–prisoner relationships are absolutely crucial. And we’ve got to get to grips with the drug problem inside prisons. Lock thousands of strangers up together without giving them some kind of a meaningful, creative experience? They will take any means available to mentally escape from that. If you’re in jail you’ve probably got a history of dysfunction and failing. You can’t change that by locking people up like animals. We need to incentivise them to use the time constructively.
There’s also an attitude of infantilisation – that prisoners aren’t grown men and women but children to be patronised and looked upon as if they’re not as bright as other people, not as capable. Prisoners are just people with various levels of dysfunction, failing and need.
Whatever your sentence, short…
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