Ex-convict, author and Guardian columnist, Erwin James speaks to Ally Swadling and Mary O’Connor about his reform and becoming a writer in prison.
“You just put my name into Google – you’ll find all sorts of crap in there.”
The very idea that before prison, Erwin James Monahan was, in his words, “a dangerous and dysfunctional individual” seemed unbelievable on meeting the mild-mannered and good-humoured gentleman sat before us.
Having suffered continuous abuse from an early age, James’ life quickly spiralled downwards. With his first conviction at 11, he found himself between various care homes. By 15, he was living an equally nomadic and destructive existence on the streets. In 1982, James met his co-accused in a squat and their criminal activity eventually culminated in the murder of two men. James was released in 2004 after serving 20 years behind bars. During the final years of his sentence, he was asked to write a column in the Guardian newspaper on prison life and still writes for the paper today. Listening to James speak to us so calmly and movingly, you have to wonder how such a transition was achieved – from a “rock-bottom” life in prison to becoming a successful writer with two published books (A Life Inside and The Home Stretch).
“My whole life is an apology really. I live an apology”
James, who has a notably humble way about him, gives no pretence that he is an “exceptional” individual, but instead pays tribute to a handful of much needed “champions”. One such champion came in the figure of the prison psychologist, Joan. During a bleak moment of James’ life, it was Joan who convinced him that he had worth. “She said to me ‘none of us are thick, we are all born with potential.’ She really hammered that down my throat. She persuaded me that I had some value,” he tells us with evident emotion. Gradually, James became reacquainted with education – something he speaks passionately about. “Education is the last bastion for rehabilitation. If we believe in rehabilitation for prisoners, we’ve got to start with education.”
James unearthed his childhood penchant for writing and enrolled in an English course in prison before going on to complete an Arts degree, majoring in history. “In a few months I was top of the class,” he beams with pride, before wryly adding, “but it’s not hard to be top of the class in prison, in any subject really.” Although James claims to be unexceptional, to succeed in the “prison soup” is difficult. “Prison was all about crushing, dehabilitating, disempowering, dehumanising, all the negative things about being a human being, prison was that” he reflects. “You have to operate within a very negative hierarchy…it’s dangerous. If you say ‘Oh I’m going to read books’, you’ll get stabbed – I’m not joking. If you’re going to further yourself in prison, you have to do it in a way that is acceptable to the hierarchy […] but I decided to overcome these negatives.”
Unsurprisingly, these problems stirred when James — known on the landings for “writing a good letter” — began writing for the Guardian. “It was dangerous in one respect because of ‘the tall poppy’ syndrome – you’ve got to be subtle about your achievement,” he explains. “Suddenly the Guardian wanted me to write for them, and my heart was bursting, wanting to tell the whole world that a national newspaper wants me to write from them.” But James was discreet and after much campaigning he eventually began writing under the pen name Erwin James. “I thought, this was something worth doing. I could have just not bothered; I could have just crawled into a hole and disappeared,” he insists. “The prison didn’t want me to write for the Guardian, they told me it wasn’t going to happen – they don’t like prisoners in the media.” James recalls an incident when he was accused of criticising the home secretary in his column and was called in front of the prison governor. “He said to me, ‘I’ve been told to tell you, (I was due my parole hearing at 18 years) any more of that and when it comes to your parole hearing, we might just turn the page and let you wait a couple more years.’” We look at James wide-eyed, open-mouthed. “I swear to God that’s what he said. I said to him, ‘If you want to keep me in prison for a bad thing, you keep me in as long as you want. But you keep me in prison for a good thing… I mean, are you threatening me? I’ve never written the disparaging things I’ve could have written, I’ve just been authentic and truthful and I’m going to carry on doing that in my writing.’”
So you faced issues of censorship?
“I was self-censored”, he states definitively, describing how he avoided the governor’s bowdlerizing hand. “I used to write my copy and read it over the phone [to the Guardian], with a big long queue behind me. So I’d be whispering, because I might be talking about drugs, or an escape, or prison politics and they might think I’m a snitch. It was dangerous. I had one guy come to my cell one night and ask, “Do you work at the Times?” I said “Yes I do”. I didn’t, but I thought, that’d put them off the scent!” he laughs.
It’s these kinds of anecdotes that remind us of the significance of James’ writing as a prisoner; a convict locked away in an unknown and marginalised place. Some criticised the Guardian for giving a criminal such an outward platform, yet James wanted nothing more than to “open a little window into what it was actually like”. “I had no issue about being a prisoner – I knew I deserved all that came to me. I wasn’t innocent, I wasn’t protesting,” he explains. “But when I read that I was in a holiday camp, eating steak and lobster, I thought that’s not fair. I’ve got victims out there, family, friends, who think that people like me are inside having a great time playing pool with my mates. It’s just not true.”
James’ honesty provided a much needed human antidote to these distorted images and allowed James to be not just a convict, but a writer. On the landings he was ‘Big Jim’, and in print he was Erwin James: a name he chose as “a sort of mechanism – not revealing too much, but not hiding either.” James’ work received largely positive feedback, but the speculation of ‘Who Did Erwin James Kill?’ reached boiling point in 2009 in a Daily Mail exposé after James tweaked information in an article he wrote about his time spent in the Foreign Legion in order to conceal his identity – a decision he remains apologetic about. While hardly an exemplary moment of James’ character, his evident frustration and embarrassment underlines for us what is most striking and admirable about him – his overwhelming spirit of self-improvement: “My whole life is an apology really. I live an apology,” he finally tells. “I knew I owed it to my victims to live the best way I could. If I’d come out of prison and just gone off quietly and become a plumber, I could have put this whole thing behind me. But because I chose this path, there is always a cloud over my head – I think about my victims every day.”
Ally Swadling & Mary O’ Connor
Originally published by Nouse in June 2012.