CILIP Conference Day 2 Keynote

Erwin James
A good book can change the way you think about life

Erwin James was sent to jail. He’d had a painful life and his life caused pain in other people. There are no excuses for crime but it is harder to avoid when your life is blighted by abuse, drink and lack of self-worth.

Went into jail in 1984 with no hope ambition or aspiration or expectation that his life could be any different. Didn’t really care if he lived or died.

We all need champions in our life

Erwin felt relief when he was convicted that he didn’t have to go back to a life without purpose where he did not fit in. Despite jail conditions Erwin could read and was able to borrow 6 books from the prison library. For the first time he had food, shelter, clothing and time to think. He read westerns.

He was sent a book, Prisoners of Honour The Dreyfus Affair by David L. Lewis, by a friend who wrote in it:

You never know where a good book might take you

Erwin read about Alfred Dreyfus, a man convinced for crimes he didn’t commit, and wondered what it must be like to have that courage and honesty. Had a dream that if he got out of prison he would go to Devil’s Island and visit his prison and wish for some of his integrity. This gave Erwin the ambition to find a good way to live.

Worked with a psychologist who over 18 months persuaded him that he was valuable. So he tried education, expecting to fail. Passed English O Level with a grade A. Began to see prison as a valuable community resource. He worked hard, achieved things and felt good.

Peace, optimism and hope. That’s the prison library.

In prison there are no rules. It’s a primitive and dangerous existence to negotiate.

Got involved in writing groups, editing to magazines. Learned and taught others to communicate effectively. About 15 years into his sentence was asked to write a column for The Guardian on prison life. Fought to be allowed to write it and wrote the column for four years. After 20 years the parole board agreed to his release from prison.

As a society we believe in rehabilitation of prisoners but are not sure how rehabilitated we want them to become. That’s absurd. Too often we are letting people out of prison who are the same or worse than when they went in. We don’t respect our prisons. Unless we take our prison system seriously and respect it we are letting down future victims.

1247 people took their own lives in prison whilst James was serving his sentence.

Now James is out of prison and people are interested in his opinion. He used to sleep right behind The Guardian now he has a security pass and walks in the front and has free coffee. He is not going to claim he deserves a second chance but he is glad he got that second chance even if he can never repay the debt to his victims or society.

He finally got to visit Dreyfus’ prison on Devil’s Island.

Last Christmas he started to think about the author of the book David L. Lewis. He emailed him and told him of his story from the moment he had got hold of the book and how he had fulfilled the outrageous fantasy he had in that cell and he thanked him. Lewis wrote back.

Be assured your special appreciation of Prisoners of Honour will stay with me forever.

We have to do the best with our lives whoever we are. The best Erwin James could do was try and be the person he could have been.

If you enjoyed Erwin’s talk you might also like to read this great post by #citylis student Neil Barclay on his work at HMP Thameside.

St George's Hall, Liverpool, United Kingdom
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