Life after a life sentence for murder...

Erwin James (c) David Levene
Erwin James (c) David Levene
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Significantly the book is called Redeemable. It isn’t called Redeemed.

Erwin James, who will be part of the Chichester Speakers Festival, doesn’t believe he has been redeemed.

But it was the belief that he was redeemable which helped him turn his life around after a life sentence for murder.

“It is not a story that I enjoy telling,” says Erwin, whose book carries the subtitle A Memoir of Darkness and Hope. “It has been a hell of a journey. I don’t know how the hell I got through it. I never think of myself as being in any way special. Whenever I talk, I am always the least special person in the room. But the psychologist who helped me in jail told me that we all have an inner strength. I had been weak all my life. But I did discover that I had that inner strength she was talking about. I just thought to myself how do I try to make this journey meaningful, to make jail work, to make prison have meaning. I was at the bottom of where I could be in life. But she told me we all had inner strength. I said ‘Even me?’ She said ‘Yes.’ And she said that I owed it to the people that I had harmed, to the grief I had caused to do the best I could with the rest of my life. I am not going to lie to you. That was the lowest moment of my prison time. It was the first time I contemplated hanging myself from the bars. But that was the moment I thought I was going to try to do something with the rest of my life. I was about 29-30. It was 1986.

“I don’t think I will ever feel redeemed. I can’t be redeemed. I wouldn’t ever dream of asking for forgiveness. I would be too ashamed. That’s the remit of the victim. I just caused so much harm and so much grief that was irreparable. But the idea of me being redeemable was enough to motivate me to do as much as I could to succeed in having a better life in prison. I wasn’t thinking beyond prison.”

Erwin was born to itinerant Scottish parents in 1957. A family lifestyle, described as “brutal and rootless” by a prison psychologist following the death of his mother when James was seven, led to a limited formal education. Aged ten he was sleeping rough when he gained his first criminal conviction for the burglary of a sweet shop, which resulted in him being taken into care. He left the care home at 15 and spent the rest of his teenage and early-adult years drifting and often sleeping rough. During that time he also committed relatively-petty but occasionally-violent crimes (criminal damage, common assault). His directionless way of life, which included a period as a fugitive in the French Foreign Legion continued, until 1984 when he began his life sentence for murder.

The turn-around came through writing: “I became a writer in prison. That was never in my plan. I never had a plan. But what happened was that I started to educate myself.

“They said I needed education. I said I am beyond education. But she said no. She said that none of us can choose the life we are born into. But we can be educated.”

Erwin is disinclined to talk about the two murders of which he was convicted with his co-accused.

“I pleaded not guilty. I lied through my teeth. We both pleaded not guilty. I was not an honest man. I was a hider. But I was involved in those crimes. It is contentious. But if I had not been there, those people would still be alive. We were both involved in terrible crimes. I took responsibility. When you are in a criminal mindset, it is selfish. It is un-empathetic. You don’t think about the victims. You don’t think about that until you are captured. I went on the run. I was in the French Foreign Legion.

“I was just a drunken tramp. When you don’t care about yourself, I don’t think you care about other people. People that care about themselves don’t generally hurt other people. You would be amazed how much self-loathing there is in prison. I had to acknowledge it with the psychologist.

“I can’t tell you how loathsome I was and how painful it was. But I started to rebuild in prison.”

And in that sense, Erwin counts himself one of the lucky ones: “I was so motivated to try do something with my life before it was over, but some people in prison are so desperate that they just can’t make those changes. I was one of the lucky ones.”

His studies in prison developed and he went on to graduate with the Open University. Around the same time he developed an interest in writing.

His first article in The Guardian appeared in 1998 and he began writing a regular column for the paper entitled A Life Inside. The columns were the first of their kind in the history of British journalism.

Today he is a patron of Blue Sky, the award-winning social enterprise company that trains and employs ex-offenders.

“I would never forgive myself, ever. But in prison, I became the guy that could write. I got my lucky break. I realised I was able to articulate and write things.”

“I was a drunk. I never did a thing sober. I was too cowardly. I was a liar all my life.

“ I was a phoney and a cheat, but now I have been given a chance to be honest... but it means that I have to expose the worst of myself. But if I can do that, then some good might come of it. And I know some people in prison that have never had that chance...”

Erwin’s session at the Chichester Speakers Festival is on Saturday, February 25 from 8.30-9.45pm.

Other speakers include General Lord Dannatt, former Chief of Staff of the British Army; BBC foreign correspondent, John Simpson; Liam Byrne, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury; Lord David Owen; Denis MacShane, former Minister for Europe; Iain Martin, former editor of The Scotsman; Luke Harding, a foreign correspondent for The Guardian; former editor of The Times, Peter Stothard; Harry Mount and Peter Clark.

For full details on the festival, see www.chichesterspeakersfestival.co.uk.

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