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Erwin James: ‘Prison is a challenge. You’ll be grateful you can read’

When he was 27, Erwin James went to prison for murder. In a frank letter to his younger self, he describes the "long and challenging journey" he followed to become a published author.
Erwin James Monahan is a convicted murderer and has been a contributor and columnist for The Guardian since 1998. He was released in August 2004 having served 20 years of a life sentence. Pictured at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Image: Gary Doak/eyevine

When he was 27, Erwin James went to prison for murder. It followed a troubled childhood, and years of escalating drinking and violence. But when he was in jail, he learned the power of the written word. He gained a reputation being a ‘good letter writer’ by his fellow inmates, and contributed the column “A Life Inside” to The Guardian.

In a frank Letter to My Younger Self in this week’s Big Issue magazine, he describes the “long and challenging journey” he followed to become a published author and the editor of Inside Time, the national newspaper for people in prison.

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When I was 16… Well pal, you’re in a bit of a strange place in life at the moment, you’ve only been out of the children’s home a year, and for most of that time you’ve been hitching around the country, staying with extended family on sofas, spare beds in cousins’ bedrooms, floors – sometimes sleeping rough in motorway service cafes, allotments, even graveyards. I know it’s something you’ve got used to, even enjoying the freedom, but there is a longing in you to find somewhere you belong, and pal, be prepared for a long and challenging journey before you reach that indefinable place.

I know you never look back to try and figure out why your life is the way it is, or try to understand the deep sadness you carry – you just think you are who you are and that’s the way it is. But there are reasons for how any of us become who we become, and I’m going to try and give you a flavour of why you are why you are. You think you’ve had some tough times, well get prepared for some tougher times ahead. And don’t be discouraged – you will get to a good place in the end.

Erwin James At the Hay Festival with economist Vicky Pryce
Hay on Wye, Powys, Wales, UK . 29th May 2014. Pictured: ( L-R ) Erwin James, Vicky Pryce and David Wilson Re: The Hay Festival, Hay on Wye, Powys, Wales UK. Credit: D Legakis/Alamy Live News
2014: At the Hay Festival with economist Vicky Pryce Photo: D Legakis/Alamy Live News

Remember the love and warmth and security you had at home from your mum and dad as a little boy? And the joy you felt when your little sister arrived when you were six? The good news is that it’s that love and joy which sustained you through the downs and ups that hit you so hard when your mother was killed the year after your sister was born. And it will sustain you throughout. I know it was painful seeing your dad behaving so badly after the crash.

He survived, but you never got your head around the dad that came back from hospital – instead of the big loving, funny, storytelling hero, you were met by a selfish, grieving, violent drunk. He could still be charming and funny when he was sober;  everyone seemed to love ‘Big Erwin’ and his guitar – especially the women he met in pubs – until he was drunk. I know being dragged into the lives of a succession of those women, all of whom already had children more important than you and your sister, hurt you, physically in the case of ‘Big Pam’ – all your life you’ll never forget the broom handle. And watching from behind sofas, or under stairs as your dad beat those women – well, it’s that fear that took away your courage.

Then he started on you. You still loved him, but the hate crept in too. By then your sister was hundreds of miles away with an aunt. You were still close to her in your heart, but without her near you had no reason to hang around, and I don’t blame you for deciding, just before your 11th birthday, that the streets were safer.   `   

Nicking rhubarb and apples kept you going for while, then you gave in to temptation and smashed your way into Mr Mann’s grocery shop looking for sweets. You almost made yourself sick gorging on sherbet lemons and liquorice allsorts – but I know, it was great. Not so great when you ended up in Bingley Magistrates convicted of burglary and sent to the home. Not so great at the home, except they fed you and sent you to school at last. That’s where you met English teacher Mrs Earnshaw.

All the other teachers said in your reports, ‘Erwin has a chip on both shoulders’, ‘Erwin is a sullen child’ – Mrs Earnshaw was the only one to give you grade As for English, and you loved it when she asked you to read for the class. When the people who ran the home said you could leave and go and live with your dad, now living with another woman and her kids in the south, you didn’t hesitate. Travel warrant and suitcase in hand, you were on that train so fast… but your dad hadn’t changed. Again, you took it for a while, and now here you are a year later, searching for something you’re pretty certain you are never going to find. But you will.

You’ll extol the beauty and power of words. You’ll be in a riot in a maximum security prison, but you’ll save your books

The drink is the biggest mistake you’re going to make. You have too many suppressed issues. One pint feels great. Two pints you’re chatting up girls, three pints you’re everybody’s friend, just like your dad. Four pints and you want to fight the whole world. In between waking up in alleys wondering where you are, wondering who broke your nose or burst your lips, you’ll be in police cells and drunk tanks. You’re a grafter, working with tarmac gangs and on building sites, but your labourer’s pay rarely lasts a weekend bender in the bars and dives you’re going to make a habit of frequenting.

rwin James with former Tory prisons minister Rory Stewart
2018: Erwin James with former Tory prisons minister Rory Stewart
2018: Erwin James with former Tory prisons minister Rory Stewart Photo courtesy of Erwin James

For stealing cars, breaking into warehouses and fighting in pubs you’re going to do a couple of hard stints in youth detention centres (gladiator schools for damaged boys). You’ll handle it, but come out more damaged, and sadly more dangerous. Pretending to be a tough guy, hiding your fear and deep sense of inadequacy, you’ll get the occasional job on the doors of dodgy nightclubs. But the drink won’t set you free.

Even when you try to settle down with a decent girl, she’ll have your beautiful daughter, but you’ll let them down. When she berates you for having no friends, you’ll tell her you have plenty of friends. “No!”, she’ll scream, “they’re all fucking scared of you!” As usual you’ll bury your shame, but leaving them both will be a good decision – for them. From then on pal, it’s downhill fast. The more frustrated you become, the more dangerous you’re going to be.

I’m sorry for you and your victims. I know you wanted to live a good life, you just didn’t know how. And now get ready, because the path you are going to take is the dark path of no return. Your violence is going to end up causing irreparable grief. You’ll run, as you always have. Soldiering will bring you some order, some discipline – a sense of what could have been. And that taste of having value and honourable conduct will serve you well when you are convicted of murder a week after your 27th birthday and sent to prison for life.

Erwin James at the The Oldie Literary Lunch
Erwin James at the The Oldie Literary Lunch 13-12-16;
2016: On the mic at the Oldie Literary Lunch in London. Photo: Neil Spence / Alamy Stock Photo

I wish I could give you some advice, a way to steer you into the light. But to be honest, your troubles are so deep-rooted you’re going to have to just plough on and hope you can survive. More good news – you do.

Prison is going to be a challenge, but you are lucky; instead of going in a low-life drunk, you’re going in a highly disciplined soldier. Your first year in a cell on your own on 23-hour bang up will give you the time you never had to reflect and figure out who you truly want to be. You’ll never be so grateful you can read. Your love of words will return, eventually.

You’ll be encouraged to educate yourself by Joan, the prison psychologist. You’ll argue you’re “too thick” but Joan will knock that right out of you. You’ll cry when she tells you, “We all have the potential to be the best versions of ourselves, we’re all born loveable.” It’s for her you’ll join the evening English class. Oh don’t worry, you’re going to be tested on the landings. But you won’t use violence.

You’re going to become ‘the man who can write a good letter’. That will give you cred. You’ll start writing groups. And prison magazines. You’ll extol the beauty and power of words, and share your favourites: propinquity, alacrity, inveigle. You’ll be in a riot in a maximum security prison, but you’ll save your books.

There will be conflicts, suicides, murders even – but you’ll duck and dive and keep on writing, until 15 years in you’ll get the chance to write for a national newspaper, the first time in the history of British journalism. When the governor tells you to “get another hobby” your perseverance will persuade the prisons minister to give you the green light, and your Guardian column A Life Inside will change the course of your life forever.

Twenty years to the day you walked into prison a failed human being, you’ll walk out of those gates a bona fide journalist and author. You’ll have hope and purpose. You’ll never forget the cost to others and yourself of your terrible choices. But you’ll be free at last to be who you should have been. And you’ll find that place you were always looking for, that place you wanted to belong, with a woman who loves you and a family who care. I wish so much I could come back and see you and hold you ever so close, I know I could change everything for you. Pal, you’re just going to have to get through it on your own. But I’ll be waiting for you… 

Erwin James is editor-in-chief of prison newspaper Inside Time, the national newspaper for people in prison