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

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‘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’.



One response to “‘We deserve a system that lets people out better than when they went in’”

  1. Hello Dear Erwin James, and Tom,

    Sometimes a headline here sets me off; sometimes the headline finds me printing the article so that I can read it properly, and sometimes I have to get out the industrial dryer to sort out the pool of tears in the carpet around me after I have done the reading…..

    “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.’”

    How wonderfully re-connecting can you get…..

    The Fire Brigade will soon be here with their industrial pumps… how much that evokes that wondrous feelings of affection that I will forever have for Mary, my Art Psychotherapist, who was daunted, along with others, by the sheer scale and force of my anger and hatred, that I had three times turned in on myself in increasingly intense suicide attempts, twice by exsanguination, and then finally by hanging.

    But Mary was undaunted in her responses to me, and also drew on her Clinical Supervisor within the / her NHS, so that I was able to unreservedly find trust in a woman again, for the first time in just over half a century.

    She was that trustworthy, eminently worthy of trust.

    That last, hanging, effort was in the NHS Acute Psychiatric Ward where I was being ingenious with the materials available to me, after I was no longer on 24 hour supervision on account of the immediately previous attempt; the very, very bloody one – where the Police Officer first attending me, at home, reckoned that I had lost about one and a half litres of blood.

    Over a two or three hour period, I add; it flowed wonderfully freely for a while, from my neck, on both sides, and then bloody clotting set in; deep in the wounds, where I could not wash the clots away….despite my efforts to do so at the loo basin that I went to… and then I returned to lie, hopefully to die, on my study / office floor.

    “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.”

    One peer human being asked another peer human being an open question about that other peer human being, and was recognising an obvious talent, without prejudice.

    “Typical me, I was never sure if people thought positive things about me, but secretly it was a [monumental?] confidence boost.”

    Erwin James, we could perhaps chat about why you were never sure, up to that point, if ANYBODY thought ANY positive thoughts about you; but that was a perhaps more of a reflection of what, for some reason or other, negative thoughts you had about yourself.

    But then you may already have found your long way back to the source of that shit, that also found you taking lives, other than your own, on the way…

    “’You can’t rehabilitate anyone. You can’t rehabilitate a prisoner. The prisoner’s got to want to change.”

    This profound and critical understanding is becoming a recurring theme here on “The Justice Gap”, which may be garnering a sub-text – “How some human beings, despite the profound flaws and problems within the Justice System in which they are deeply enmeshed and embroiled, find healing, through the offerings of other peer human beings, who make it their business to offer hope, and purpose, and trust, to those within whom such capacities have been dreadfully compromised; but not fatally.

    I’m once again rehearsing to sing Woolfie Mozart’s “Requiem”, at St John’s Smith Square on Saturday the 8th of November, and there’s one section that I am singing, as a tenor, with ever-increasing urgency and passion, whose power is being acknowledged again to me; and I’m getting to understand where that power and passion come from.

    “Ne absorbeat eas Tartarus: ne cadent in Obscurum….”

    “DON’T let them be swallowed up into hell; DON’T let them fall into darkness..” – phew, those words might have emerged from Sir Winston Churchill… with his eyes burning brightly at his audience.. or his tone of sheer resolution beaming over the air-waves…

    Wow, something passionately caring, rather than condemning and massively threatening, in the Catholic Liturgy…

    Both Erwin James and I spent many decades in that darkness; but then we came to really understand the scale of our internal chaos and carnage, and at the same time saw some hands reaching down to us in the abyss; and we reached out and took those hands, and held on, like grim death itself, to emerge from that darkness, and return to the light of day where, once upon a time, we had started our lives as beautiful innocents…

    Thank you, Erwin James, for seizing that opportunity, and again welcome back to a world of beauty and goodness, that you have enriched with your return.

    You and I both draw on our understanding of what it is like to return from Hell on this Earth to Heaven on this Earth – (and I note that I believe that that is the only Heaven ever available to us) – so as to encourage others to make that same return transition.

    Some will seize the opportunity, and some will spit on the offered hands, and attack them – those ones are irredeemably lost; their internal cancer has won the day, has killed them emotionally.

    They are no longer creatures of this earth, no longer mammals…

    They are unapologetic, remorseless in their ongoing offending, and among other things are fabulous in deceiving and manipulating others; they are people in the Psychopath / Sociopath spectrum, determinedly so, whose sole purpose in life is to inflict harm and damage on others, with the same level of passion and intensity that Good people seek to keep others safe, protected, and then happy; especially children.

    See “The Hare Psychopathy Checklist”, http://www.minddisorders.com/Flu-Inv/Hare-Psychopathy-Checklist.html ; and bear in mind that not all psychopaths / sociopaths are locked up; there are many wandering around blatantly, but not properly recognised, including many men and women is suits, and collar and tie, if men…. Pillocks, and much worse, of Society… and Mums, and Dads, and Uncles such as Ernie…

    Yours, George Gretton

    I am well aware of how much undesirable material can find its way into Psychiatric Wards and Prisons – James Rhodes makes fabulous reference to that – drugs, blades – from his own Ward experience, which was the result of his sexual abuse by a teacher, in a gym situation, I understand.

    I offer my services as a book-checker-out, so that books without any payload, save the proper one, can be made available to prisoners.

    For many prisoners, depriving them of access to books is like cutting down their oxygen supply. As a checker-out, I would not feel the need to check out books received directly from publishers or suppliers or bookstores – I would not need to do a page-by-page razor-blade check….

    Separately, when I was in Shore Ward, at The Park Royal Centre, 2007/2008, some bastard nicked my “Tommy” CD, as from Pete Townshend and “The Who”, from my cubicle in the four person room where I then was sleeping. But in total contrast I recently encountered the young man who was in the cubicle opposite me, and we had a lovely chat..

    I recently re-visited the Ward, in its revised Triage role, and spoke to, and thanked, the many lovely human being members of staff who still work there, six years on, who all recognised me, and smiled to see me so much better in myself….

    And I learned the name of the young woman nurse who found me hanging, unconscious, in my then single room, and simply saved my life; although I don’t know what she and others has to do – I was unconscious. I also thank the surgeon or surgeons who previously managed to repair my neck blood vessels – their repair work must have been pretty demanding. I now have a beard, so the scars are no longer visible, as it happens ….

    “In my case (as in after being sentenced to prison) I became who I should have been”; or re-discovered the good in me that I had previously both lost, and lost sight of… by perceiving it in others. I was re-born through the experience; found, was given, a second chance.

    On one of my last sessions with Mary, as we were going into the Art Therapy room where we had laboured so mightily, I said to her “Hello Mum”.

    There was no response, so I asked if she had heard it properly, and her response was “Yes, I heard you; but didn’t know what to say in return…..”

    Thank you, Mary-Mum. You will always live inside me.

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