The murderer who wrote himself out of ‘the deepest, darkest hole’

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.

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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 or long, forge a path that will give you some meaning

When I walked out of those prison gates, it felt like I’d done a 20-year exercise in survival. Along the way, I was encouraged by some amazing people: teachers, probation officers, psychologists, governors, prison officers. I had some inner strength, but I couldn’t have done it without them.

Understanding the pain and grief and harm that I’d caused crushed me for a while. It’s like a cancer, that remorse and contrition. You’d be amazed by how much remorse and shame permeates a prison landing: fear masked by bravado and big talk.

Sketched by court illustrator Julia Quenzler, Erwin James in the dock at the Old Bailey from which he was sentenced

Instead of guilt destroying me, I used it to justify my life. I wanted to salvage something from the wreckage that I had caused. There’s no excuse for crime, but it seems to me it’s more complicated than we’re all bad people.

What works best? Honesty: honest interaction between the people in charge of the prisons, and prisoners. Creative activities helped me, and help many, because they require this of you. You’ve got to be honest to get on a stage and sing, to play a guitar in front of your fellow prisoners, to perform in a production of Carmen at HMP Dartmoor, as happened recently. There’s no hiding place. I learned to play the guitar, I was in a band, and I started to write. Creativity gave me an inner value that I’d never had before. I wrote myself out of the deepest, darkest hole.

Creativity gave me an inner value that I’d never had before. I wrote myself out of the deepest, darkest hole

I returned to the Old Bailey recently – that was just so emotional. I stood in the witness box where 32 years earlier I’d lied through my teeth trying – shamefully, shamefully – to get out of the hole I was in. I had no courage, no character. I know my past is shocking. It’s shocking for some people to think that I’m allowed to walk the streets. But generally, I’m accepted. I’m not talking about forgiveness, or even understanding, but acceptance. It’s the greatest gift a society can give people who have caused harm and distress.

I don’t think it’s poverty that drives crime, I think it’s when you’re made to feel that you’re not worthy. I look back at my life and it was the terrifying violence that drove me inside myself, to become a coward. I was terrified of everybody, and that triggered circumstances and events. I had a difficult childhood. But it isn’t an excuse, absolutely not.

I never forget my victims: never ever. I never forget the people out there still grieving because of me. Here I am living life, and there are two spaces where there should be people. It’s a constant conflict between enjoying life and not being sure that I really deserve the life I’ve got. I just want to give as much as I can. Until the end comes.

‘Prisoners are just people with various levels of dysfunction, failing and need.’ Image: Tracey Fahy

I know from photographs that up until the age of seven, I was an inveterate smiler – a loving little boy. But when it’s drummed into you that you’re thick, stupid, ugly, it’s really hard to overcome that. There’s still a bit of disbelief in me that I’m anything more than I was told. But I know I’m not a criminal now. I couldn’t imagine causing anybody harm or distress or unhappiness.

I think I’ve been able to go full circle because I had love and security up until I was seven. I think we’re born with a personality and then we develop a character. My character was destroyed. And I had to rebuild it myself, in prison.”

Erwin James is patron of creative arts charity Create, a Prison Reform Trust trustee, Guardian columnist and editor of Inside Time newspaper

Featured image: Tracey Fahy


This article is part of a special focus on prisons, which also features in Positive News magazine. Give stories not stuff this Christmas and inspire a friend with a gift subscription to Positive News magazine