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


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.

Erwin James – ‘My Truth About Prison’

6.00 Tonight – 9 May 2012. Berrick Saul Building.

Join Erwin James (Writer and Guardian Columnist) as he recounts his personal experiences when he served a jail sentence for twenty years for murder.

This event will be of particular interest to people concerned with literature and incarceration, prison fictions, literature and human
rights, journalism, professional writing, and issues around prison and education.

This event is part of the Prison Fictions and Human Rights Project organised by Claire Westall & Michelle Kelly (English Department).

Dr. Lucy Powell: Imprisonment and the Eighteenth-Century Novel: The Enchanted Caste and the Hell Mouth









On Tuesday April 24, Dr. Lucy Powell (UCL) came to York University as part of the Prison Fictions and Human Rights Project. Her talk was entitled: ‘The Imagined Self: Identity, Incarceration and the novel in the eighteenth century’. Lucy’s academic profile has soared following the BBC’s recognition of her as a New Generation Thinker and one of the most exciting young academics in her field.

‘The degree of civilization can be judged by a place’s prisons’ – Dostoevsky

Dr. Powell began by referencing Dostoevsky and his assertion that prison is the dark mirror for society, its shows us who we really are.

Eighteenth century imprisonment was mainly about durance rather than punishment. In London prisons, for example, 75% of inmates were debtors. It was only towards the end of the century that prison became a penal reality and architecturally impermeable. She then spoke more specifically about the prison in relation to the eighteenth century novel. It was during this century that the novel was born, or at least rose to prominence. This coincided with the rise of the self-determining individual, hence the novels often tell only one character’s story and often have names as titles. Powell’s examples were Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Fielding’s Amelia and Richardson’s Clarissa – all of which, like most eighteenth century novels, contain prison scenes. In Moll Flanders prison is ‘hellish’ whereas in Amelia the imagery is much more that of the ‘enchanted castle’, depicted in the language of romance. She then showed us work by William Hogarth which evoked a sense of the moral ambiguity surrounding the state of prisons and prisoners in the eighteenth century.

In conclusion Powell argued that these works all have a uniting theme – the characters are on the move, they are self- fashioning individuals seeking to preserve a subjective identity which prison seeks to strip from them. By raising the idea of the ‘hell mouth’, ‘enchanted castle’ and the mirror, Powell demonstrated how questions of identity are fluid and transitional. In the end, the only repository of truth is the self.  Powell chose to end with a thought-provoking rhetorical question: is individualism the most crippling prison of all?

TALK: Dr. Lucy Powell: Imprisonment and the Eighteenth-Century Novel: The Enchanted Caste and the Hell Mouth

This Tuesday (24th), Lucy Powell, who is one of the BBC’s new generation thinkers is giving a talk at the Berrick Saul building called Enchanted Castle and the Hell Mouth – Imprisonment and the eighteenth-century novel

This talk will explore the prevalence and function of imprisonment in the eighteenth-century English novel. Using some of the century’s most influential texts such as Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Fielding’s Amelia, and Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, it will demonstrate that incarceration speaks to the core concerns of the nascent novel genre: resistance and rebellion, and through these, to an emergent, era-defining individualism. It will illustrate that imprisonment in the novel functions as expression of captivity and as a means of personal liberation, and will situate its fictional findings in a wider, socio-cultural context of eighteenth-century prison reform, culminating, in the final decades, of the century, in the birth of the modern prison system, with the construction of the first penitentiaries.


Please do attend if you can make it.It should be a really informative, in-depth talk and I hope you’ll all be around at the beginning of term. The facebook event is below: