November 21 2023

‘We deserve a system that lets people out better than when they went in’

‘We deserve a system that lets people out better than when they went in’

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Koestler awards, Ariane Bankes Outstanding Award for Oil 2008

Koestler awards, Ariane Bankes Outstanding Award for Oil 2008

ERWIN JAMES: ‘I wasn’t thinking about the future, I wasn’t thinking about prison, I was just thinking “I’m glad that’s over’’.’

That is how Erwin James recalls his immediate response to being sentenced to a minimum of 14 years in prison, later raised to 20 years. Erwin James Monahan was found guilty of two murders in August 1984.

Looking back to that day in 1984, what would he say to his younger self? ‘What would I say to him?’ he asks, half in disgust at that man from 30 years ago. It’s one of the only points during an hour long interview that James breaks eye contact and pauses for any length of time. ‘God almighty…I’d probably say something like… .’ The pause continues. ‘Wherever this journey is going to take you, keep going… keep going… because so many people don’t. You never know where it’s going to take you.’

While inside, James stumbled upon a passion for writing, and his journal entries about life behind bars were picked up by the Guardian newspaper, with the money he made going to the Prisoners’ Advice Service. But the journey wasn’t easy.

James did keep going, but as he was taken down beneath the Old Bailey into the holding cell – facing a minimum of 14 years in prison – he had no interest in doing so. He says: ‘At this point the thought of being found not guilty was more daunting then prison, so the thought spending an eternity behind bars was met with a sense of relief. I was finished and I was glad.’

Erwin James PAS:JG lecture

Erwin James chairing the PAS/ JusticeGap 2012 debate

It’s so unpredictable in there,’ he says, reflecting on his early years in prison. The column he wrote regularly for the Guardian describes fights over whether to watch football or Star Trek, and tension building because someone didn’t pass the newspaper on to the next cell before he fell asleep. The days were spent just waiting to get back to his cell incident-free. ‘Thank god, that’s another one over.’ The problem, he says, is that prison is a dehumanizing experience. It’s not an environment that motivates and encourages people to want to do better. It’s basically a case of survival. ‘When you’re treated like an animal in prison it’s very hard not to behave like one,’ he says when referring to the ‘Evening feed!’ call that would be barked by the guard at dinner time.

The atmosphere in prison burdened James with a sense of worthlessness. Why should I bother if no one cares about me? ‘Light didn’t come in, gloom did,’ he recalls.  The turning point came after a conversation with a psychiatrist who he describes as ‘trying to bring us back’. She strived to give prisoners a purpose and one particular point resonated with Erwin. ‘You owe it to your victims to do the best you can with your life.’

James’s writing skills were stumbled upon by chance, at a meeting for people who had suffered with alcohol problems. He had been given the task of writing a short essay about his life and when the leader read it, she asked if he had been a writer before he came to prison. That’s when things changed. ‘Typical me, I was never sure if people thought positive things about me, but secretly it was a confidence boost.’

His ambition to have his work published in the Guardian was controversial. One particular prison boss who opposed the idea said to him ‘we want prisoners to be rehabilitated, but we don’t know how rehabilitated we want them to be.’ For James this comment encapsulates how difficult it is for prisoners to fit back into society.

The real hard work starts when you walk back out the prison gates. Unless you’ve made some good connections and contacts before you are released, you’re on your own. After all, why would an employer hire someone with a history of violent convictions, when there are a dozen other applicants who do not? ‘You’re always at the bottom of the pile,’ he says before telling the story of a friend who served 25 years of a life sentence and applied for 104 jobs unsuccessfully.

‘In general society I still don’t believe that we really accept people back into the community’. Despite the problems he thinks prisoners face, he accepts that the desire to change can only come from one person.

‘You can’t rehabilitate anyone. You can’t rehabilitate a prisoner. The prisoner’s got to want to change.’
Erwin James

But in a justice system that attempts to rehabilitate prisoners with a view to releasing them back into society, surely locking them up and dehumanizing them is counter-productive? ‘I’m against the way we use prison, because it doesn’t benefit society, all it does is keep a few trouble-makers out of the way for a while,’ he says, ‘we deserve a system that lets people out better than they were when they went in. They cost us a fortune’.

The problem he says, is that society is conditioned to think ‘prisoners aren’t like us’. By committing crimes like murder and rape a prisoner has sacrificed his humanity and therefore deserves to be segregated from the civilised people in the outside world. Because most people will not be affected by prison it’s safe for them to say ‘they’re scum’, and not give them a second thought.

It is very difficult for members of the public to understand that people who do harm to other people have needs and we need to fulfill their needs, not just to give them a better experience in prison, but because the majority of the people in there are going to come out one day.’
Erwin James

James regularly clarifies throughout that he is not ‘anti-prison’. But if our system is designed to release prisoners when they’ve served their sentence surely an effort should be made to make these people capable of fitting into society when they are released. ‘We deserve a system that lets people out better than they were when they went in. They cost us a fortune.’

Grayling’s book ban
He describes the work Chris Grayling does as ‘fixing a problem that doesn’t exist and creating problems that weren’t there to be begin with’. Banning parcels sent to prisoners for example was packaged as a way to restrict contraband coming into prisons, but the blanket ban means you can no longer send a book to a prisoner, something that as writer James knows could have a massive negative effect.

James’s writing for the Guardian has slowed a little over recent months, as he works on his autobiography – due to be released in early 2016 – and continues his public speaking at various festivals and events. But you’d be wrong to think he doesn’t still carry around burden of his actions 30 years ago.

‘It’s like a shadow inside of me. Twenty years don’t make a dent in the debt I owe my victims.’ He is proof though that prison can have a massively positive effect on people who before being sent down were completely lost. ‘In my case,’ he says, ‘I became who I should have been’.