Erwin James: A lifer's sentence

As part of the Cúirt International Literary Festival, writer Erwin James, who spent his youth in borstals and most of his adult years behind bars,  spoke to inmates at Castlerea Prison. Colin Murphy looked on.


In 1984, Erwin James was sentenced to life in prison, for a “crime of massive violence”. He won't say what it was. The judge recommended he should serve at least 14 years. He did his time quietly.

“I learned prison very well. By the time I'd done ten years in prison, I thought, I've mastered this. I am who I should have been. I am authentic.” He had, he hoped, four years left to serve. One day, he was called into the governor's office. “I've got some bad news for you,” said the governor. “Sit down.”

“I'll take my bad news standing,” James said. (“I was a bit cocky like that.”)

“I think you should sit down,” the governor said. “I'll stand,” said James.

The governor gave him a one-page letter. It was from the Home Office. As a result of a legal challenge, the Home Office had been obliged to write to all “lifers” and inform them precisely how much time they would serve. The letter said Erwin James would serve 25 years.

James sat down.

“I was just wiped out. With the stroke of a pen. I thought, they don't care. They don't care if I do a degree, if I do a charity run...”

He had gone in to do 14 years (he hoped) and had done 10. Now, he was facing another 15 years.

“It was a bit odd, psychologically.”

Erwin James is not given to emotive overstatement. He speaks quietly, calmly; his temperament, erudition, and English accent give him something of the aspect of a vicar, which is incongruous, considering the context. James is speaking as a former “lifer” to a room full of lifers, and others on long sentences, in a classroom in Castlerea Prison, Roscommon. (The event is part of the Galway-based Cúirt literature festival.)

When he talks of prisoners, he uses “we”, yet he disavows this as an identity.

“I don't think of myself as an ‘ex-offender', an ‘ex-prisoner', an ‘ex-con'. I don't have any identity relating to prison at all. Prisoners are not some kind of ethnic group that can be all lumped together.”

He reads from his book of collected columns from the Guardian newspaper. James was the first prison columnist in the history of British journalism, writing a weekly column, ‘A life inside', which became ‘A life outside' when he was released in 2004. (He served just 20 years – “to the day” – following a successful challenge to the 25-year order.)

“Oh Christ,” he says quietly, as he flicks through the pages choosing a column to read, rectangular glasses perched at the edge of his nose. “These are like my diaries.” He shakes his head, and laughs to himself. When he reads, the room goes still.

When he walked into the room first, with 15 or so men waiting, one of them exclaimed, “Big Jim!” James and this man were fellow prisoners in England in the early-1990s; the man is still doing his time, but transferred back to Ireland. He and James talk, briefly; the man has a bemused look on his face.

A fellow in his 20s, at the back of the room, says to the lad beside him: “Twenty years he did, you can see it in him.” “Twenty years?” The other marches over to James, a massive roll in his shoulders as he walks. He sticks out his hand. “Alright man, howareye.”

“I don't normally talk much about my life before prison,” says James. And then he falls into talking, openly, about his youth.

His parents were poor, from Scotland. Before Erwin's arrival on the scene, his father hitchhiked to London in search of work, and was followed by his mother. When James was seven, his mother died. His father became a drunk and moved in with a succession of other women, each of whom had their own children. James was “kind of tagged on at the end of these families”. His father was “openly violent” towards these women; aged 10, James was beaten by one of the women, and he left. He slept in an old air-raid shelter, and robbed food from a grocery store. He was caught, and “put in a house on edge of moor in Yorkshire”, a detention centre where he and his fellow detainees “aspired to be criminals”.

He was in and out of centres for the rest of his youth, acquiring 23 convictions.

“I got out of the detention centre 10 times more dangerous than when I got in... I couldn't find a position where I belonged, so I drifted along, creating havoc where I went.”

Then came the “crime of massive violence” (“of which I'm totally ashamed and horrified”, he says, though he says no more about it), and his response was to flee.

He borrowed £25 from his father, hitchhiked down to the coast, crossed the channel to France, and found his way – without any French, or any money – to the recruitment office of the French Foreign Legion, in Lille.

When he first mentions the Legion, there is a stir in the room. “You fuckin' trained fuckin' killer!” says a voice, appreciatively. “You'd snap anyone next to you in two fuckin' seconds!” And the owner of the voice does some ninja-like hand chopping at the air, to laughter.

He spent four-and-a-half years with the Legion, for much of it based in Corsica.

“Suddenly, I was in a structured life,” says James. “I seemed to adapt to it well. You get rewarded for good effort, good work. I thrived on good will, on being thought well of. Within 14 months, I was a corporal. But I had this dark secret; I'd behaved really, really badly, caused devastation.”

The personal growth he experienced while in the Legion brought with it a sense of values: “I went from a position of not having values to suddenly having a conscience.” His crime loomed large in that new-found conscience.

“Just on the spur of the moment, I just thought I'd better go back. I left the Foreign Legion, went to British embassy in Nice, and handed myself in. Looking back, I'm glad I took that decision.”

That decision resulted in a 99-year sentence.

“I'm not going to talk to you about prison, you all know what that's like,” he says. And then he falls into talking, at length, about prison.

For his first year, in Wandsworth Prison, he was “banged up” (locked in his cell) for 23 hours a day.

“The good thing about Wandsworth was lots of time to think. When I went down the stairs of the Old Bailey, I was glad to put that life behind me. I listened to Radio Four – I'd never listened to the radio before. I read the Telegraph. I'd take my six books a week from the library.

“Because I'd been in the Legion for a few years, I did have the edge on a lot of my fellow prisoners. I [had] my discipline, and I thought, I'm going to keep it. I had a few run-ins with the prison authorities; I didn't want to look for trouble but didn't want to kowtow to anybody. I knew that my first year in prison was going to be about survival.

“I think warfare is akin [to being in prison] because, unless you've been to war, you don't really know what it's like in a trench. Unless you've been on a prison landing, you don't know what it's like there. It all depends on the survival of the meanest, the most devious, the most corrupt.”

There are nod and sly winks and laughs in the room.

He seems the model of the rehabilitated ex-prisoner, standing here, talking careful, sensitive, erudite words to still-prisoners.

“Rehabilitation – it's a word that makes me want to spit. We pay lip service to rehabilitation but we undermine it with punitive regimes.”

The regime is punitive, not just from the system's point of view, he says, but also from the prisoners' point of view – that punitive regime is inflicted by prisoners upon each other.

“You don't let your defences down. You can't show your emotions when the guy next door hangs himself.”

There may be facilities in prisons, but the regime means that prisoners “struggle to access those things, and if you access them, you struggle to get any benefit from them”.

The key to James's “development” in prison was his encounter with a prison psychologist: “She persuaded me that I was still valuable.”

The psychologist helped him to stop identifying himself simply as an “offender” – something that had been with him since his time in borstal as a teenager.

“I was liberated from an identity that [had been] fostered upon me.”

The psychologist persuaded him to go to education classes in the prison, and he took an O-Level, and subsequently got on an Open University course. He rediscovered an early gift for English (the one subject for which he had received positive reports, in school).

“It became something that was ‘real', that I was pleased to be known for. I got a reputation [for] being able to write a good letter. I became like the ‘camp scribe' in the different prisons I was in. I became quite good at prison. I was fit, strong. I was bright – I always [had] thought that I was thick.

“My purpose was not to get out, but to have a decent way of life in prison, to have values. I studied history and philosophy. I admired people that triumphed over adversity.

“You have to be determined,” he says, simply. He had a quote posted on his cell wall for 18 years, from the US president of the 1920s, Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not... Genius will not... Education will not... Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

(On the wall of the classroom where the morning session takes place, in the prison's Grove School, is a poster with a photo of penguins and the motto, “Determination. The will to succeed can overcome the greatest adversity.”)

James started writing, and a series of fortuitous contacts, initiated by a probation officer, led to an invitation from the Guardian to become their first prisoner columnist. The governor refused permission initially, but the newspaper lobbied at government level and the prisons minister okayed it. James got the green light for his first article.

“I looked out my cell window. It was raining. There was nothing happening. I thought, ‘what the hell am I going to write about'?”

He knew he didn't want to write about “convicts” or “offences”.

“I want to write about life in here: I want to open a window,” he thought.

The words came, and his column quickly attracted a following. He started to get feedback in letters from readers. James relished the sense of discovered identity.

“Instead of a prisoner who wrote, I became a writer in prison. I could have lived forever as a writer in prison.”

His column has continued “on the outside”, but he is now “fed up thinking about prisons”.

“On the other hand, I'm still a writer. I want to write novels. I want to achieve. I want a bestseller. One day, I want to win a Booker Prize. I think I've done my work in prison.

“I don't think of myself as an ex-con, an ex-prisoner. I'm a writer. I was in prison. It was an experience I went through.”

An experience that is still very much with him, however: “I'm still getting out of it. Most of my dreams, I'm in prison.”

James does two sessions with different prisoners during his day in Castlerea. Both finish in much the same way. At the end of the morning session, he says to the men, “I wish you courage in the journeys that you all have ahead, and have good lives. Because life is good!” The men come up to him and each shakes his hand. “Take care of yourself man, good luck to you.”

Bernadette Butler, the prison's English teacher, adds: “Tomorrow morning, if you're not doing anything too much, there are a few more writers coming in.”

Back on the outside, we stand and talk, briefly. James does not want his photo taken.

“I have another life. I don't want to be just the writer who was in prison.” He asks that some details of his past that emerged during his talks not be published. “I was pretty open in there. Go easy on me.”

He remembers another anecdote. After he first handed himself in, he was some months in French prisons. He read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, in which Jean Valjean spends 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread.

“I thought, ‘Fuck, how could you spend 19 years in prison?' And now I have.” He laughs.

Erwin James visited Castlerea Prison as part of a series of prison readings and talks organised within the 22nd Cúirt International Festival of Literature in April. He is the author of A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook and Home Stretch: A Prisoner's Notebook