The Prison Reform Trust – of which James was a former trustee – described him as a man of “deep intelligence, humility and warmth.”
Author and prison reformer Mark Leech said he was “very sad” to hear the news, adding that James “did so much to highlight the plight of prisoners and will be greatly missed.”
Born in Somerset in 1957, Erwin James had a difficult childhood. His mother died when he was just seven, and his father became a violent alcoholic. James was sleeping rough by the age of 10, and committed his first offence at the same age – breaking into a TV factory.
“If I had been looking at the history of someone else, I would have seen a little boy who was no more than a bone-raggedy, troubled scamp in dire need of care, attention and, dare I say it, love,” James said in the Daily Mail in 2016.
But when he looked at the rest of his criminal record, he said he was “appalled.” His litany of crimes – mostly petty offences – culminated violently in 1982, when James carried out two robberies during which two men died. After fleeing to serve in the French Foreign Legion, he turned himself in in 1984 and was convicted of murder.
“In my drunken criminal thinking, I had become selfish and psychologically detached from other human beings. Every crisis I’d had, from adolescence to adulthood, had been of my own making,” he said.
Encouraged by a prison psychologist to pursue education, James started writing for the Guardian while he was still incarcerated, penning a regular column entitled ‘A Life Inside’.
“I was in prison, but I was free to think and free to write. In my wildest dream I even imagined that if I worked hard enough at thinking and writing, one day I might make it as a journalist,” he wrote in Inside Time in 2016.
Following his 2004 release, Erwin became a full-time writer. He authored three memoirs: A Life Inside, The Home Stretch and Redeemable. For six years, he stewarded Inside Time, which is distributed in the UK’s prison estate and vows to provide “a voice for prisoners.”
John Roberts, Inside Time publisher and director, paid tribute to Erwin James.
“We shall be forever grateful to Erwin for his contribution to the success of Inside Time during his time as editor, and he will be missed,” he said.