Interview: David Wilson

UK leading criminologist and ex-prison governor Professor David Wilson, speaks to  Ally Swadling about his experience of prison, penal reform and how to dispel prison stereotypes.

“When I went there I’d ask if he was OK, and say that I was concerned that he was locked up by himself. On one memorable occasion he waited for me to visit, and when we opened his cell door he had stripped naked and covered his entire body with black shoe polish. He then threatened to “stab me with his moustache”, and told me to “fuck off”. I did.”

The press called him “the most violent prisoner in Britain” but for Professor David Wilson, Charles Bronson was simply another one of the inmates at HMP Woodhill where Wilson worked as a prison governor. A ‘Category A’ prison, Woodhill is the notorious home of two special units which Wilson helped to design and to manage, containing the 12 most disruptive prisoners in the country. “Even if my primary responsibilities were to the prison’s special units, I saw Bronson regularly enough in the segregation unit,” Wilson recounts in his column in The Guardian. “Only one person wanted Bronson to be in solitary confinement – Charles Bronson.”

Professor David Wilson was the youngest prison governor in the country before returning to criminology

Sat with a coffee in hand, the Wilson sat in front of me is very much the “celebrity” academic I’ve seen in more recent years on the TV and writing in newspapers – not perhaps how I’d imagine him as a prison governor dealing with the likes of Bronson. Wilson is direct and precise in his expression and he quickly abandons his coffee to free his hands, which are constantly gesticulating as he speaks. Notably, he is also nothing like the detached, chain-smoking bald bloke who was chosen to portray him in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2008 biopic Bronson, which depicts an incident where Bronson held the prison librarian hostage and Wilson took on the role as hostage commander. “Of course I might have been calculating – or appeared so to him – but I am not bald, bespectacled and I have certainly never smoked.” Wilson is an interesting man, to say the least.

In 1983, he completed his PhD at Cambridge and was then quickly recruited by the HM Prison Service’s Assistant Governor Scheme before starting his training at HM Wormwood Scrubs.

“Originally I was interested in the philosophical idea of why do some behaviours become labelled as crime and why do some behaviours, which cause just as much damage, are seen as permissible. Because I was reading philosophy it was this particular idea that attracted me to pursue a career in dealing with offenders. I wanted to apply the idea, and so my first ever job was an assistant governor in Wormwood Scrubs” Wilson explains. “I literally went from the philosophy to the practice in the course of a weekend.”

As a perpetual student in his twenties with no previous experience of employment, it comes as no surprise that the transition was stark. “Stark contrast is perhaps understating what happened,” he smiles. “I think prison officers didn’t like assistant governors, especially ones called ‘Doctor’ who had come straight from Cambridge; they wanted their prison governors to be ex-army or something. It was only because I could prove my abilities of playing rugby and that I understood the idea of boarding schools and people living in close proximity that I was able to survive those first few months. They were crucial in allowing me to then go on and pursue the ideas that had interested me in the first place.”

By the age of 29, Wilson became the youngest prison governor in the country. I ask how his experience of working with violent prisoners had affected his original philosophical thinking at this point. “My first exposure to a serial killer was when I was training as an assistant governor in Wormwood Scrubs and he was called Dennis Nilsen. I was kind of intrigued by that,” Wilson explains, referring to “the Kindly Killer” who was convicted in 1983. “But my first real experience of working with really violent prisoners was at Grendon, which operates as a psycho-dynamic therapeutic community and therefore its purpose is incredibly optimistic.”

Working at Young Offender’s Institutes Finnamore Wood and Huntercombe, Wilson went on to work at Grendon prison where he ran a sex offender’s treatment programme. Following his “positive experience” of working at Grendon, Wilson was asked to work with the violent prisoners of Woodhill. “That was a much more challenging experience and not at all as optimistic as the experiences of working at Grendon,” he concludes gravely.

His time and contact with these violent offenders began to shape his ideas on prison, and ultimately led him to quit the prison service in protest of the conditions. “I resigned when I returned from a visit on behalf of The Council of Europe to Albania, I was asked to help to advise the new democratic government of Albania about setting up a democratic penal system [Albania was previously under dictatorship]. Albania is an incredibly poor country – I was expecting their prisons to be appalling, but frankly they were better than our own.” His hands motion emphatically, also gesturing towards a deep-seated passion that now seems to have been masked by a well-practised television persona. “So because of being under a dictatorship, their attitudes to prisons were far more enlightened than British attitudes towards prisons. I resigned when I came back from visiting Albania, saying I don’t want to do anything more in our penal system. It was a natural return therefore to apply for an academic job.”

Wilson, who is now a Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University has 15 published books predominantly on the subject of serial killers. He’s also become a figure of the public eye, regularly contributing to The Guardian and presenting documentaries for the BBC and Channel 5. I ask Wilson about his responsibility to dispel the kinds of distorted images of prison and prisoners the media so loves to weep about. “Well to bring it bang up to date, I think it is very interesting how Channel 4 promoted Gordon Ramsay” Wilson begins, referring to Channel 4’s favourite over-used leather handbag who went into Brixton prison to teach prisoners how to cook. “Both Channel 4 and Ramsay have played on two stereotypes of prison: the first was he was going to encounter super predators, that everybody there was going to try and kill him and try and hurt him in some way. But equally he’s also played on the other flipside of that stereotype; that prisoners are lazy and don’t want to get out of their cells; that they’ve really got to be cattle-prodded to take any action to change their circumstances,” he explains cuttingly, mimicking the tabloids. “So often what I’m doing in the public eye is trying to counteract those stereotypes by talking about how prison is in fact a much overused space that usually creates more problems than it solves. I think because the vast majority of the public don’t get access to the prison—that’s why programmes like Ramsay’s are so important—and if he panders to stereotypes it seems to me that it’s an opportunity missed.” Wilson raises his eyebrows as a resigned look flashes across his face. “I am pleased that it disappeared with almost no trace.”

However Wilson’s involvement in television is also problematic. In 2008, Wilson resumed his role as prison governor in a fake prison with the former Home Secretary David Blunkett as part of social experiment that followed the rehabilitation of ten offending teenagers in a programme called Banged Up. Although the series was nominated for a RTS award, it received a mixed response, most notably from ex-convict turned writer Erwin James, who called it “a sham.”

“I think that Banged Up really did work” Wilson affirms. “The medium can work, it is just those TV programmes that want to be sensationalist, populist, and exploitative programmes—which tend more often than not to get a commission—that is the problem.” While I wouldn’t call Banged Up ‘ground-breaking’, the message is an obvious and important one. I do take some issue however with Wilson’s more recent documentary Killers Behind Bars: The Untold Story, which aired on Channel 5 earlier this year.

David Wilson promotes his latest TV programme, Killers Behind Bars. Photo Credit: Channel 5

“Killers Behind Bars started out with a much more academic purpose, which was to introduce the public to real criminology as opposed to CSI criminology. In the series I’m actually using genuine profiling techniques,” he describes. “Actual offender profiling is a bottom up, data-driven approach to discovering or suggesting who the police might target the investigation towards.” While it is an incredibly interesting and compelling viewing, there is something quite uncomfortable about watching an hour- long documentary that re-opens these high profile cases in such horrific and intimate detail. Something about it just smacks of those “Never Been Seen Before!” straplines plastered all-over tabloids and ‘Real Life’ story magazines – the voyeurism of these kinds of programmes is just unavoidable.

I find myself getting frustrated that Wilson won’t acknowledge the difficulties of his own programme which doesn’t seem to have much purpose other than to satisfy morbid curiosity. How can we find this elusive balance between entertainment and enlightenment? “Well the balance is heavily skewed towards entertainment,” he admits, “I think there are some interesting and edgy programmes as a consequence of that imbalance. For example, Dexter springs to mind as a very interesting and edgy programme. Dexter is a serial killer who targets other serial killers, so the viewer ethically and morally is being asked to root for Dexter – I find all that very problematic, because really what we’re playing on is a stereotype of what a serial killer is like. Serial killers are not dramatic, exciting, insightful people – they don’t talk about fine foods and Florentine architecture or blood spatter patterns. They’re actually rather boring, dull, grey, everyday people who are self-obsessed, weedy and needy.”

It’s not quite the resolve or explanation I wanted, but it does characterise a man who has remained faithful to the truth and to his own experiences. David Wilson can certainly be relied on to provide a well-informed and lucid voice to the prison debate, but it’s disappointing to see the burgeoning “celebrity” rather than the academic.

With thanks to Ed Greenwood for his help and research.

Ally Swadling

Originally published by Nouse in November 2012.


Interview: Erwin James

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.

Erwin James served 20 years in prison for his crimes. Photo Credit: David Levene

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.

21st June Photographs: Pushing the big red button…

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Speakers include Kate Hendry, Lynda Radley, Prof. David Wilson, Erwin James, and Gillian Slovo

Photographs taken by Katrina Northern, Lydia Mihailovic and Seb Brixey-Williams

The Job of a Writer: a smashing write-up of the Prison Fictions Event.

I’ve just left a remarkable event entitled Prison Fictions, during which  memoirist Erwin James, academic David Wilson, and novelist Gillian Slovo all shared their experiences and perspectives about imprisonment and writing. Riding my bike to the discussion at the Berrick Saul building on the University of York campus, I felt the sensation of freedom–the wind rushing past my jutting-out hair, the evening sky catching its breath after unrelenting rains throughout the day, and the old bike’s wheels taking the hills downward with self-appointed speed.

Ironic, though, considering the issue and the focus for the evening.

David Wilson began, talking to a packed theater about the need for more awareness about what happens within prisons. As a previous prison governor (the equivalent of a warden in the states), David shared passionately about why honest stories need to be told about what occurs behind prison walls, and that media needs to work to “provide some gray to the all-too often black and white of the tabloid media.”

Erwin James spoke second–a muscular man with a voice as unassuming as a child’s. A convicted murderer, James was sentenced to serve a life-imprisonment of 99 years, but was paroled after 20 years of that sentence. Four years before his parole, he began writing for The Guardian, and eventually wrote two books on his life in prison. An incredible kind of humility, dignity, and transformation bolstered every word James shared. His eyes met an audience leaning forward when he shared that, “I didn’t believe I’d been born bad, but I had behaved that way my whole life. In my cell, what I had was time to contemplate how I had become what I had become. I had the time to consider my dysfunction.”

James spoke powerfully about his transformation into a writer and a journalist, and how he came to see the human dignity each of us is born with, but often loses in a society that so consistently asserts punitive punishments. James commented that the most important factor for the rehabilitation of a prisoner is “to be able to focus on something positive about oneself.” He spoke powerfully about the need to rehabilitate prisoners–considering that so many who are released are repeat offenders.

Finally, novelist Gillian Slovo spoke. As a child of imprisoned white South African parents, Gillian experienced from a young age the pain of prison–watching her parents walk behind closed bars and hearing the shattering sound of slamming doors. Her mother, Ruth First, wrote the acclaimed memoir 117 Days, about her time in solitary confinement without trial in a South African prison for her affiliation with those fighting for justice. The author of 12 novels, including Red Dust which was made into a feature film starring Hillary Swank, Slovo shared deeply about the need for literature, stories, and writing to share the stories of those who are imprisoned. When I asked her about the power literature brings to the conversation regarding structures and systems that perpetuate the status quo, she responded, “Literature doesn’t tell people how to think, but it enables empathy to exist.”

Her line resonated deeply with me–especially as I considered the plethora of neo-conservative pundits how don’t offer anything by way of empathy, but mountains by way of judgment and blame. The absence of empathy in our political discourse, and in our portrayals in media, is a stark and egregious tragedy. Gillian continued, “The job of a writer is to reveal worlds that people may never have imagined.”

If there is a more beautiful intersection of literature and social justice, I don’t know what it is.

Luke Reynolds

Originally published on 21 June 2012 on Luke’s blog, Intersections. Luke is a writer and teacher, his most recent book is entitled: A Call to Creativity. Writing, Reading, and Inspiring Students in an Age of Standardization.

York PEN’s Official Launch: Prison Fictions and Writing Imprisonment, 21st June.

3pm The Bowland Auditorium, Berrick Saul Building, 21st June 2012

5.30pm Ticketed Event Bowland Lecture Theatre. Anyone with tickets will be entered into a draw to win a signed copy of a book by each author.

Tickets available at:

Organised by the Prison Fictions & Human Rights Project

Funded by The University of York’s Research Led Project and Rapid Response Fund


3pm WELCOME by Dr Michelle Kelly & Dr Claire Westall

Chairs: Claire Westall & Michelle Kelly
* Film Screening of the ‘Inspiring Change Prison Project’
* Kate Hendry, Motherwell College and HMP Shotts, explains the ‘Inspiring Change Project’
* Lynda Radley, playwright, explains her experience of working with female prisoners in HMP Greenock, Scotland, as part of the Inspiring Change Project to create a theatrical production entitled ‘A Woman’s Place’.

* York PEN, the new student group will announce themselves – in style!
* Robert Sharp, Head of Campaigns and Communications, English PEN



Chair: Dr Claire Westall
* Professor David Wilson, Birmingham City University, will be speaking about his experiences as a prison governor and his academic work on how prison is represented in popular culture and the media.
* Erwin James, writers and guardian columnist, will be speaking about his writing on imprisonment and the tensions between autobiography and the need to fictionalise.

6.30pm BREAK

Introduction by Michelle Kelly and Robert Sharp, English PEN
GILLIAN SLOVO, President of English PEN, will speak about two divergent but overlapping texts about imprisonment – 117 Days, her mother’s account of detention without trial in South Africa, and a new Guantanamo memoir she is currently writing.



Kate Hendry, of Motherwell College, teaches Creative Writing at HMP Shotts. She has also worked in Greenock and Barlinnie prisons where she has edited and published prisoners’ writing and art work. She has compiled, in collaboration with prisoners, an anthology of contemporary Scottish poetry for prison reading groups, The Poem Goes to Prison (Edinburgh: Scottish Poetry Library, 2010). Her paper evaluating the impact of prison reading groups on prisoners’ literacy practices was published last year in the RaPAL Journal (vol 75 autumn/winter). This year she is setting up, with Lottery funding, a new national arts magazine for prisons to showcase prisoners’ creative work. Her own poetry and fiction has been published widely and can be found in Harpers, New Writing Scotland, the Bridport Prize anthology 2009, Mslexia, The Rialto and Kin: Scottish Poems about Family (Edinburgh: Polygon 2009).

Lynda Radley is an award-winning playwright. She is originally from Cork but lives and works in Scotland. Lynda has worked for companies such as the Traverse Theatre, Dundee Rep and the National Theatre of Scotland. Her work has been seen on stages from Glasgow to Cork, and from Amsterdam to Australia. In 2010, Lynda worked with female prisoners at HMP Greenock as part of the Inspiring Change Project. This project was overseen by The Citizens’ Theatre in conjunction with Motherwell College and Creative Scotland. Lynda’s play The Art of Swimming was shortlisted for the Meyer-Whitworth award and for a Total Theatre Award. Lynda has been nominated for a PPI Irish radio award and twice for an Irish Times Theatre award for new writing. Most recently, she won a Scotsman Fringe First for her play Futureproof. Her plays are published by Nick Hern. Berlin Love Tour – a walking tour of Berlin that can take place in any city – was recently seen at Birmingham Rep and will soon be performed at Cork Midsummer Festival. It is produced by Playgroup.

David Wilson is Professor of Criminology and the Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University. Prior to taking up an academic appointment in 1997, David was a Prison Governor and at 29 became the youngest governing governor in England. He worked at Grendon, Wormwood Scrubs and at Woodhill in Milton Keynes – where he designed and ran the two units for the 12 most violent prisoners in the country, which brought him into contact with virtually every recent serial killer. David regularly appears in the print and broadcast media as a commentator and presenter.

Erwin James Monahan embarked on a programme of part-time education in prison and gained an Open University arts degree. He developed an interest in writing and his first article for a national newspaper, The Independent, appeared in 1994. In 1995 he won first prize in the annual Koestler Awards for prose. His first article in The Guardian newspaper appeared in 1998 and he began writing a regular column for the paper entitled A Life Inside in 2000. The columns were the first of their kind in the history of British journalism and to this day James remains a Guardian columnist and contributor. A collection of his columns, A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook, was published in 2003. A follow up, The Home Stretch: From Prison to Parole, was published in 2005. A year after his release from prison in 2004 James became a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and in September 2009 he became a trustee of the Alternatives to Violence Project Britain. He is a patron of the charity CREATE, an organisation that promotes the arts and creative activities among marginalized groups. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (FRSA) and an Honorary Master of the Open University.

Gillian Slovo is the South African born author of twelve novels and her best selling family memoir Every Secret Thing. Her novel Red Dust won the RFI Temoin du Monde prize in France, and was made into a feature film starring Hilary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ice Road was short listed for Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize. She is a recipient of an Amnesty Media Award and co-compiler of the Tricycle Theatre production Guantanamo-Honour Bound to Defend Freedom which she assembled, from spoken evidence, for the Tricycle’s ‘Women, Power and Politics’ season. Her play The Riots was put on in 2011 in the Tricycle and Tottenham’s Bernie Grant Arts Centre. Gillian was elected the 25th President of English PEN in 2010, and her twelfth novel, An Honourable Man, was published in January 2012.

Books for sale at the event:
Radley’s Futureproof; Erwin James’ A Life Inside and The Home Stretch; David Wilson’s Serial Killers: Hunting Britons and their Victims; and Gillian Slovo’s Every secret thing, Red Dust, Guantanamo, The Riots and An Honourable Man.

Poster: Photography by Francesca Pollard, Design by the Prison Fictions and Human Rights Marketing Group.


Erwin James (writer and columnist for ‘The Guardian’) became the third speaker of our series on Wednesday 9th May with his talk entitled ‘My Truth about Prison’.  James recalled the years he spent as a homeless and dysfunctional youth drawn into a life of crime, eventually being convicted for murder for which he spent twenty years in prison.

Now patron for the charities ‘CREATE’ and ‘The Reader Organisation’, James emphasised the transformative power of education and the importance of being given opportunities to develop what you’re interested in (for him – English – which was a secret passion of his at school). James spoke of how developing his writing skills in prison through educational schemes allowed him to complete an Open University degree in history and enter a career in journalism, finally becoming part of a society he’d always felt excluded from as a teenager.

During questions and answers, James denied that he had been ‘rehabilitated’ during his time in prison. What prisoners need, he said, is a civilising experience in prison, and it is the attitude of society that denies individuals such a vital education. Addressing broader issues such a reoffending rates and the relationship between prisoners and guards, James acknowledged the value of the prison service in maintaining public safety but pointed towards the need of reform in the way prisoners carried out their time if they were going to be successfully reintroduced to society.