‘Writing makes me feel I was really living.’ There’s irony in when Erwin James writes that he’s a Category-A prisoner and banged up for killing two people. He doesn’t dwell on that. No excuses of how it was a robbery that went wrong –twice- and turned a thief and his mates into murderers. I’m not usually criminal, although sense of humour border on it, but I also write to make sense of the world and there is a lot of Ewin James I recognise in myself. This is Jack Abbot territory, an insider account ‘In the Belly of the Beast’. Not a plea for redemption, but understanding. The material Erwin James works with is himself, his memories:
‘Understanding how I’d become what I’d become before prison was central to me agreeing that is was possible for me to live again.’
His father Erwin senior was born in Stevenson, Ayrshire and his mother from Paisley. Erwin was born in April 1957. There’s a post-war boom and the family move to England. Alison, a baby sister, soon follows. Fast forward to when Erwin junior is inside serving his term for murder. He’s told his dad is dead. Ewin senior was sixty-four and he’d been found alone lying on the floor of a sheltered housing complex. No great loss was my way of thinking. He’d smashed up people’s lives, beat up whatever girlfriend he’d hooked up with, abandoned his kids, and spent all the money that should have went on caring for his kin on drink and drunk himself to death. But here’s the rub, Erwin junior always dreamed of living with his dad. Of his dad loving him. And them living happily ever after. The boy that was in the man never gave up on that dream, even when he was inside.
Erwin junior and Alison’s life might have been different if his mum had lived. But their dad insisted that one of their pals drives her home, even though he was incapable of turning the ignition key in the barrel, and he drove off the road and killed himself and the kid’s mum. Erwin senior survived. People like him always do.
John Steinbeck got it about right, ‘A sad soul can kill you quicker than a germ’. And for a boy aged five, his sister aged two, he latched onto the only thing he knew, his dad. One of the images that sticks with me is young Erwin sent to school with a cut down pair of wellies and on the school trip the teacher rounds up all the other pupils as his mum had ‘forgotten’ to make him a packed lunch. Erwin eats everything thrown at him before the bus leaves.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s, The Spirit Level, gives a checklist of some killers i)low social status, ii) lack of friends iii) stress in early life. Erwin had all of these things in spades. He ends up in a care home and graduated with honours in drinking, fighting and stealing.
Erwin recognised that is needed not be that way. He had a choice. But the pattern was there. ‘The majority of people in prison had similar life experiences to mine – they had been in care, limited education, had family problems from a very young age, had issues with alcohol, drugs and mental health.’
The father of two kids he’s abandoned, Erwin found redemption in the French Foreign Legion. He didn’t know that the majority of recruits don’t get into the Legion. They are rejected. He was used to that. On another school trip a swarm of school kids had poured into a public toilet, he was sleeping in one of the stalls and the school kids had rejoiced that they’d found a tramp. Erwin was twenty-three. In the Legion he found the French language and that he was a natural soldier. Everything he did, he did well and got into an elite regiment in the Legion. But wanted for murder he decided to go home.
Erwin finds hope in Joan Branton, a prison psychologist, who believes in him and his ability to change. And Erwin finds education allows him to think. Writing in beautiful prose allows him to create a voice out of the mosaic of his past. It’s a voice that holds true through the difficulty years inside. He wins the Arthur Koestler award and gets to write for The Guardian. Twenty years later he walks out the door and into a new life. The old lives are not forgotten, but part of his new life helping rehabilitate other offenders. Erwin knows better than most that when cuts to the system come they start with the poorest and those most in need, they start with the prison system. Lock them away and forget the key. That’s not a solution we can trust but is a vote winner. There is no redemption there.