About three weeks ago I was walking to the train from work and, as I often do, I was listening to the radio. It happened to be Radio 4 and the programme was “In the Criminologist’s Chair”. Not my usual fare but I listened and within minutes was hooked. The subject was Erwin James. I’ll be honest in that I’d not heard of him before, but he has gained a reputation as a journalist and writer, writing for among other publications, the Guardian.
Erwin James had spent 20 years in prison for a double murder. Not a double murder he didn’t commit but one he did commit (along with someone else). Now I am not a person to be drawn into the life and career of someone with a notorious past. I certainly am not the sort of person who would buy a book written by someone who was essentially using past notoriety as a source of stories from which to profit. However something about the tone and candour of Erwin in his interview made me think differently about this person.
I did a bit of research and watched a couple of interviews he had done which were on YouTube and this something about Erwin and his story became stronger. I decided to break an unwritten rule of mine to purchase a book by someone who has been in jail which tells the story of how they got into prison and their life within the prison system. There was just something about this story that drew me in. I’m so glad it did.
His book is called “Redeemable – A memoir of darkness and hope”. I read it in 3 days which, for me, with my work and other responsibilities, is very quick and speaks volumes for how Erwin James’ story drew me in.
For those of you who believe that our prison system is a holiday camp and that we need to be tougher on criminals, you need to read this book because they are most certainly not holiday camps. One aspect about Erwin’s book which really impressed me is that he didn’t go into any detail at all about the two murders he and his accomplice committed. There was no gory or graphic details explaining the thought processes (or lack of) leading up to, during and after the murders were committed. What there was, was a tale of how someone like Erwin got to this point. It isn’t a sob story – there was an incredibly tough story to tell of growing up after your mother was killed in a car crash at a very early age and then your father becoming a violent drunk and then Erwin himself modelling his father. It briefly tells the story of how Erwin joined the French Foreign Legion to try to escape from his wretched life after he had committed the murders. Though this is a very minor part of the book it is surely his life and training in the Legion that prepared him to endure 20 years at Her Majesty’s pleasure in some of the toughest prisons in the country as a category A prisoner – often spending 23 out of 24 hours a day locked away in a cell.
It is a tale of how a childhood of neglect can turn someone into a petty thief, violent drunk and eventually a murderer through choices those around Erwin and Erwin himself made. It is also a tale of how education can change someone’s life and give them a way out of the darkness. It is a tale of how our prison system because of chronic under-funding and political interference doesn’t do the job it should – it punishes yes but instead of rehabilitating it often turns petty criminals into habitual, hard criminals – it becomes an academy of crime rather than a place where someone can learn how to function as a decent and honourable member of society. However it also makes clear that there are people who work within the prison system – often against the constrictions of the system – who can make a big difference. In Erwin’s case Joan, a psychologist in Wakefield Prison who Erwin cites as the person who changed him and, in Erwin’s words, made him believe he was redeemable.
This is not a warts and all story of a prison life, glorifying in the antics of criminals. This truly is a story of someone who reached the depths of humanity and, through the help of others, found a way out.
Erwin James is now a successful writer and journalist and for me a role model. Not of what he has done in the past but for what he has done to try and redeem for his crimes and for how he has rebuilt a life and a purpose for living. I highly recommend this book – it should be on the reading list of every Home Secretary and every minister with any responsibility for our prison system. Thank you Erwin James.