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Book Review by Nigel French.
Earlier this summer, I (Nigel) found myself in a maximum security prison. It was as a guest of a literacy charity, and it was only for an evening – but an evening which will stay with me for many years.
The Literacy Trust (amongst others) helps prisoners who need help with improving their reading and writing skills – the majority of prison inmates have a reading age of 11 or below. This particular evening was the celebration after a literacy competition which had been held in the prison for the inmates, it was an opportunity to award prizes (in this case, dictionaries), listen to a guest author and for all those present to chat about books and reading. My first life affirming moment from that evening came from a conversation with a young inmate, he was serving a long sentence and had gone to prison as an ‘illiterate’. He had subsequently learnt to read with the help of the charity, and could now read a bedtime story (The Gruffalo) over the telephone to his 2 year old son – the smile on the young man’s face as he told me this heart-warming tale was a story in itself – his body may have been incarcerated, but his mind had been liberated.
I then got chatting with the guest author, Erwin James, and being unfamiliar with his work, I asked him “so what do you write, Erwin?” to which he replied “non-fiction, I write about life experiences” I thought no more about his answer and our conversation continued about the publishing industry and books in general. It was then time for Erwin to give his talk. As the hush settled, he started to speak “I know what you guys are going through, for I have been where you are now – I am a convicted murderer and I was sent to prison over 30 years ago, a wild man and barely literate”.
And so Erwin told us his story, and wow, what a story it was. This angry, violent young man (he was in his 20s at the time) had been found guilty of murder and sentenced to a life in prison. He learnt to keep his head down and accept and serve his debt to society – and he learnt to read and write. The skills he found in literacy drove him to write to newspapers, time and time again he wrote letters from his prison cell – wanting to tell the world what life in prison was really like, it was not the cushy existence portrayed by visiting politicians who claimed a life inside was all colour TV and duvets, it was harsh, and quite rightly so. He did not seek pity, nor did he try to excuse his past – he just wanted to tell his story. His letters finally caught the attention of the Guardian newspaper and so started a series of articles, published over a 3 year period, which tell of his life in prison.
There have been several high profile ‘prison diaries’ published over the years, ironically mostly written by shamed politicians, however, the articles written by Erwin James, brought together in his book ‘A Life Inside – A Prisoner’s Notebook’, tell a story which I will not easily forget. I enjoyed my time in prison, I enjoyed talking to a young man who had found joy in the ability to read, I enjoyed meeting Erwin James – all of my experiences that evening shone a light on some of the darkest shadows of life.
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‘A Life Inside’ by Erwin James – Atlantic Books – Paperback £10.99p