What's it like doing a life sentence for a double murder after the Old Bailey Judge labelled you ‘brutal, vicious and callous’?

Erwin James served 20 of 25 years and was released in 2004. He knows what life is like on the ‘inside’.

Erwin wrote 113 columns for The Guardian G2 section from inside the prison system. As patron of the Prison Phoenix Trust based in Oxford, he’s giving a talk about making prisons more effective on Tuesday at St John’s College.

When writing for The Guardian he gave his fee to a charity, the Prisoner’s Advice Service, which offers free legal aid to prisoners with questions about their treatment or their sentence. It helps them serve their time effectively.

I asked why he supported this particular charity. “Because we deserve prisons that release people who will create fewer victims when they come out. If politicians and the public are not interested in rehabilitation then they are not thinking clearly about potential victims. If we corrode people in our prison system we will pay a price for that.

“Prisons are a huge mystery for society. Politicians use prisons in a cynical way to get soundbites about a ‘short, sharp shock’ or ‘turn on the austerity’ or ‘they are the backbone of law and order’.

“The media tell stories about how prisoners are all scum. But when I read that I was in a holiday camp eating steak and lobster, I thought ‘that’s not fair’.

“Nobody knows what it’s like in there. When I was sentenced for murder I felt my life was over. When I went to Wandsworth the officers joked that I should be put on E wing. I didn’t get it at the time but that’s where the death cells were and in 1985 Wandsworth had a working gallows that remained operational until 1996. If the death penalty had been on the statute books I would have got it.

“I wallowed in misery and shame but since I could read I got six books out of the prison library each week and sat reading in my cell with a chair, a bed, a table and a bucket for slopping out for 23 or 23½ hours each day. I lived a parallel existence. I was alive but dead to the world.”

How did he crawl out of that dark space?

“Reading helped me. I must have been ready to change even though I had no value system and my character was very weak. I was moved to another prison where I had access to a chapel and exercise yard and a psychologist who was there to assess my risk. She worked with me for 18 months and persuaded me I might have something valuable.

“So I started going to English classes. I passed exams. I began to feel good about myself. But my conscience was awakening and I didn’t feel good about feeling good, if you get it.

“The psychologist, Joan Branton, told me ‘you owe it to your victims to achieve something in the life you have got left’. She said I could never repay for what I had done in the past, but at least I could make my life in the future have some meaning.”

That’s a tall order when you are at rock bottom, so I asked Erwin James how he did it. “I developed an interest in writing partly because there is a big problem in this prison world. It is violent and unpredictable with a great deal of aggression, largely because there is so little communication.

“I was inarticulate, ill-educated and shy. Writing gave me a sense of living well in prison, making sense of things. But some things make no sense. Our landing was allowed one video per week and we could all watch it together on the wing. I was in charge of the video committee and on a particular week when I went to choose there was only one video left – ET, so I took it and put a notice on the board we would be watching ET that night. One guy got very agitated and started shouting ‘f*****g ET, I don’t want no ET.’ “His racket was drawing attention so I led him into my cell and told him ‘the screws will be on us in a minute. Come on, I’ll make us a cup of tea’.

Oxford Mail:

  • Experience: Erwin James has written about his life behind bars and is coming to Oxford to talk about the issue on Tuesday

“He followed me in and became hysterical over ET and grabbed a plastic knife from my shelf. Suddenly I felt a stabbing blow in the corner of my left eye. He also struck me in the scalp and face. I countered with a head-butt to his nose and he fled bleeding from the cell.

“Violence can erupt about something inexplicable and petty. ET moments happen. Small things can loom large.

“He was shipped out of the prison a couple of days later for threatening a prison officer and eventually released.

“He was stabbed in the leg at a nightclub. Gangrene set in and it killed him. I was relieved. If we had ever met up again who knew what could have happened?”

I asked if Erwin James had ever been in a prison riot.

“Yes, that happened in 1990 shortly after the Strangeways riots. It was pretty scary. Prison officers leave the wings and inmates roam the corridors ripping the cell doors off and starting fires. I took all my books and writing, put them in a pillow case and stood guard over it brandishing a steel bar that also served as one of the legs on my bed.

“The public think there are rules, but during a riot there are no rules.”

I asked how he managed to survive in this surreal world for 20 years.

“I did it by going to evening classes. I got a history degree from the Open University in six years. I graduated in Nottingham Prison. During this time I was thinking about society, something I was never really a part of. How did you get to live in houses like those lining the streets of Nottingham. I’d lived in sheds and slept rough in squats and graveyards.

“I joined writing groups and did yoga for 14 years, which taught me how to relax – courtesy of the Prison Phoenix Trust.

“Drama groups came into prison and I joined because I did not have the confidence to speak in front of people. The drama groups brought hope with them.

“Finally I asked The Guardian if they would like an ‘insider’s view’ column because I wanted to achieve as much as I could in my concrete box and I wanted to open a window for the public to see what kind of life we are living in prison. The Guardian agreed and I wrote the column for four and a half years until I came out.

“Omar Khayyam wrote a poem about two men looking through prison bars. One saw mud. The other saw stars. I’m grateful I live in a society where they give you a second chance because I could never tell you I deserved one.”