A unique newspaper column has come to an end for the most unusual of reasons – the writer has been released from prison.
It took nine months for The Guardian to persuade the Prison Service to let it publish Erwin James’ fortnightly, and then weekly, Thursday column, A Life Inside. And it eventually took the intervention of prisons minister Paul Boateng for the paper to get the go-ahead.
But four years on, the column has proved to be an enduring success – even though James admitted this week to Press Gazette that he had some initial qualms about the job.
He said: “I looked out my cell window through the bars into an empty exercise yard and thought ‘what the hell am I going to write about?’.”
In fact James has found plenty to write about in The Guardian’s G2 section – most memorably providing a prisoner’s eye view on the first series of Big Brother and the September 11 attack on New York.
James had no formal education before prison and was first jailed for six months at the age of 17. After a working career, which he described as “haphazard”, he was jailed for a longer stint – which would end up being 20 years – at the age of 27. He declined to reveal what his crime was.
James studied English and Maths at prison and gained an Open University degree majoring in English. He was approached by The Guardian via a friend on the outside who he was helping to research a script.
He said: “It was very difficult because there was a blanket ban on prisoners contacting the media at the time. I was in a closed prison and they were very uneasy about any prisoners talking to the media.
“When I said there was an opportunity to contribute to The Guardian they pulled the shutters down and made it very difficult for me.”
James paid tribute to then editor of G2 Ian Katz, who negotiated with the governors and prison service headquarters, who then raised the matter with the minister.
He said: “Mostly it was down to the perseverance of Ian Katz. I did some sample columns which persuaded him there was merit in pursuing this despite the circumstances.
“Once they said yes you can do it, suddenly I had to do it. I’ve got no professional writing background at all and I thought nothing really happens in prison – but it does. There’s lots of nothing happening and mundane routine and then there’s moments of high drama.
“When I thought about it, there’s all human life there. Prisoners are people, in prison – all the associated things that go with a life are there, often they’re more exposed. Not necessarily the specifics, but the human vulnerability is very much exposed.”
Initially, all the money James earned for the column went to charity, but when he switched to open conditions early last year, he was able to start keeping the fee. It was an arrangement which, after a PCC investigation earlier this year, was found not to breach the Editors’ Code of Practice rules forbidding payments to criminals.
Reflecting on his four years as the country’s first incarcerated national newspaper columnist, James said: “It gave me a sense of purpose. I had been in prison a long time, 20 years, and the last few years it was getting harder.
“When I got the chance to do the column, it was a way of doing something useful. There isn’t much in the media and the public domain which is authentic and credible about prisons.
“Prisons are a big mystery, they are secret places – I had an opportunity to open a small window and that felt really special. It felt like a relationship with society – it felt like I was doing something worthwhile.”
James said the feedback he got from the column was “very positive” and that it seemed to have had “quite an impact on a lot of people”.
He added: “The most touching thing for me was parents who had young men in their family who were in prison and didn’t have anyone to talk to or to share this thing with. They seemed to get some comfort from this column.”
James has now been at liberty for three weeks and is working for a charity.
He also hopes to pursue his writing career and is to continue a fortnightly column for The Guardian called A Life Outside.
He said: “I’m getting used to being free again. I feel like prison has worked for me. It’s like I’ve been reborn, my old life is dead. I’ve built a new life in there and now I’m getting to test it.”
Prison bosses may have initially tried to block the Guardian column – but this week Prison Service director general Phil Wheatley confessed to being a fan.
He told Press Gazette: “Allowing a long-term-sentence prisoner to write for a national newspaper was a bold step for the Prison Service, but it has been an undoubted success. Mr James’ column has given Guardian readers a genuine and unique insight in to prison life. I hope they have enjoyed his column as much as I have.”
LIFE AS A PRISONER HAS GIVEN JAMES A UNIQUE VIEW …
… on prisons: “They are secret places – I had an opportunity to open a small window and that felt really special. It felt like a relationship with society – felt like I was doing something worthwhile.”
… on prison life: “All the associated things that go with a life are all there, often they’re more exposed. Not necessarily the specifics, but the human vulnerability is very much exposed in prison.”
… on freedom: “I’m getting used to being free again.I feel like prison has worked for me. It’s like I’ve been reborn, my old life is dead – I’ve built a new life in there and now I’m getting to test it.”
EXTRACTS FROM PRISONER’S DIARY
“Lifer, aren’t you?” he said, before I could turn my back on him. “Yes,” I said. He talked about different jails he had worked in, infamous prisoners he had known and the swing of the pendulum. “Punishment, rehabilitation, punishment. Backwards. Forwards. They can’t make their mind up what they want out there,” he said. “But I’ve seen plenty come and go just like you. You’re probably not thinking too far ahead right now, but the end will come eventually. And when it does the system will just spit you out,” he snapped his fingers – ” just like that.”
August 12 2004 Paranoia was widespread, fuelled by alcohol and drugs. The alcohol was mostly “hooch”, made from orange juice mixed with sugar and mashed fruit, and fermented with yeast stolen from the prison kitchen. It was the perfect environment for the most negative aspects of prison culture to thrive unchecked. Looking back from my situation now in open conditions it’s like looking at another world, a world of human reduction and destruction that has never been acknowledged in the accepted crime and punishment equation.
By Dominic Ponsford