Freedom, he wrote

Guardian prison columnist Erwin James never had much of an education, but rediscovered a talent for writing while serving time. As a collection of his columns is published, he reflects on how the written word has helped him through

It was the prison chaplain's wife who first gave me an inkling that I might have a talent for writing. Her name was Grace and she had volunteered to run an evening class in the prison's education department on the perils of drinking too much alcohol. Her class took place just one evening a week, but it got us off the wing for an hour and a half. More importantly, Grace was an attractive, open-hearted woman who treated everyone as equal. The content of the course didn't matter too much. An hour and a half in her company was enough to make a prisoner feel like a human being again - for a while, anyway.

Grace used to give us "homework" to do in our cells. (Is alcohol a stimulant or a depressant? What are the damaging effects of overindulgence? How many units of alcohol can a man safely drink per week? How many for a woman?) After the fourth or fifth session, she pulled me to one side at the end of class. She thanked me for the effort that I had made with my homework - and then she said: "Can I ask you, do you write?" An odd question it seemed. "Well, yes ..." I said. She smiled, acknowledging my puzzlement and then said: "No, do you write? Are you a writer?" This time it was my turn to smile. "Oh no," I said, "no, not at all."

A writer? If anyone else had asked me such a question, I would have thought that they were making fun of me. But Grace had been sincere. She hardly knew me. It was my first long-term prison and I had only been in the place a few months. With just a few hundred words of my untidy handwriting in her hands, Grace had really thought that I might be a writer. It was the first time since my life sentence began that anyone had suggested that I might possess a positive quality. Somehow being alone in my cell that night didn't feel so bad.

Grace had awakened a memory from my childhood. My young life had been unstable and it was not until the age of 11 that I started to attend school regularly. That was when I was sent to live in a council-run home. I was a surly, incommunicative student in most subjects at school. But I shone in English. It appeared that it was something for which I had a natural aptitude, sharing the top spot in the class with a boy called Michael, who I now understand suffered from a form of autism. It was always a race between Michael and me to get our hands up first in spelling lessons. Whenever I took my report card back to the home at the end of term, however, nobody thought to acknowledge that I might have achieved something with my A grades in English composition and comprehension. There was no abuse that I knew of in the home. But neither was there any encouragement or sense that any of us in there would amount to very much. In the end I left school when I left the home, aged 15, with no academic or vocational qualifications. From then on I only ever had a very poor view of my intellectual abilities. Grace's comments took me back to those school days when I believed I was secretly good at something. She had made me think that perhaps it was something that I was still good at.

Eventually I began getting call-ups to see the wing psychologist, Joan, who was approaching the end of her career. Over a period of several months, Joan persuaded me to attend academic education classes. She lent me books by Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky "You're bright," she would say. "You must educate yourself." Flaubert and De Maupassant followed, and within a year I had an English O-level, grade A. When Joan retired, she gave me a copy of Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, along with a card in which she had written: "Today is the first day of the rest of your life."

These early encounters fashioned the path that the rest of my life in prison would take. Education would be the mainstay. I was accepted on an Open University course, choosing to do an arts degree, majoring in history. My studies, for the most part in my cell at night, took me from classical Greece through the Augustan age of Rome, culture and belief in Europe in the middle ages, the Age of Enlightenment, Victorian Britain, and finally a comparative study of Great Britain and the US from 1860 to 1970. Along the way I gained a reputation in the various prisons in which I was located for being able to "write a good letter". Fellow prisoners would ask, usually through mutual associates, if I could assist with parole representations, letters to probation officers or social services, or just wing applications to the governor.

Life on the concrete and steel of the landings could be bleak and often merciless. But over the years I met a number of well-motivated people who worked in the prison service, as well as many remarkable fellow prisoners - all of whom assisted in making it possible to turn a life around. Most importantly, perhaps, I discovered that education, and writing in particular, freed my mind to the extent that being bound became my means of liberation - liberation from a past that was more constricting than any prison sentence ever could be.

It took me 10 years to establish a way of living that I believed was authentic. After that it was just a question of doing the time. I got involved in prisoner representation groups, charity fundraising events and prison magazine projects while working as a hospital orderly, gym orderly, workshop hand and yard cleaner. More years passed and then came the opportunity to write for the Guardian. By then I was in a medium-security prison, where I thought it would be easier to take advantage of such an opportunity, although my first attempt to contact the paper almost ended in disaster.

In large black type at the back of the booth, the sign was in plain view for all to see: ANY PRISONER FOUND CONTACTING THE MEDIA WILL BE PLACED ON REPORT. Nobody using the phone could miss it. Except that I had - and I knew that once the security staff had listened to the tape recording of my conversation, I would be in trouble. The phone I was using was on the hospital wing. Unlike the phones on the main wings, it was left switched on all day and there was never a queue, so I had managed to persuade a health care officer to let me in on the pretext of arranging a dentist's appointment.

Once in my cell I thought about the possible consequences of my call. A few days earlier I had received a letter from a writer friend who told me that someone he knew at the Guardian had mentioned that the paper was thinking about running regular articles from a serving prisoner. My writer friend said that he had put my name forward as a possible candidate and then an editor had asked if I could call him at the paper to discuss it. Now it looked like I had stymied my chances before writing a single word. Once my "contact with the media" had been discovered, I would be "nicked" (the prisoners' term for being placed on report) and put in the punishment block for sure. In itself this would be no real hardship - but it would make any further communication with the newspaper difficult, if not impossible.

Then I had an idea. When the cell doors were unlocked again, I went to the wing office and asked if someone would ring through to the hospital for me. I described the officer that I had spoken to earlier and said that I wanted to see him again. "I need to talk to him about an urgent personal matter," I said. The young wing officer must have thought that I had an unmentionable medical condition as he gave me a look which said "say no more" and promptly made the call.

I had prepared a little file containing evidence of my writing activities to take with me. It included a couple of letters that I had had published in local newspapers, a certificate for winning first prize in the prose category of the Koestler Awards (an annual arts competition for prisoners and patients in "special" hospitals,) and one or two bits from prison magazines.

Back in the hospital I sat in the office on the other side of the decent officer's desk. "Right," he said. "What's this urgent problem?"

I took my file from under my arm and began spreading bits of paper on his desk.

"If you'll just bear with me a moment," I said, "I'd like to explain something about the way I've been serving my sentence."

He looked slightly bemused but allowed me to continue. I told him that I had been in prison for 15 years. "I've tried to use the time constructively," I said. I explained about the evening education classes and the degree. Pointing to my bits of paper, I spoke about my writing ambitions. "Prison has given me opportunities to develop in a way that would never have happened outside," I said. "It has enabled me to become the person I think I could have been if things in my early life had been different."

"I don't mean to be rude, he said, "this is great stuff. All credit to you. But what has it got to do with me?"

"Well," I said, "when I used the hospital telephone this morning I called an editor at the Guardian newspaper." I explained everything and how I had missed the sign forbidding prisoners contacting the press until I had put the phone down. "As soon as security hear the tape I'll be nicked and in the block."

"Hmm," he said, and looked thoughtful for a while. Eventually he looked up. He reached across to the tape machine which held the cardphone's security tape and pressed the eject key - then he lifted the tape out and slid it into the top pocket of his starched white tunic.

"When they come to collect it tonight," he said, "I'll just have to tell them I forgot to put a tape in this morning."

I managed a choked "Thanks" as I gathered up my papers.

So the editor that I had spoken to asked me to write some articles about prison life. "Give me two or three, at about 800 words," he said. Late nights followed. I scribbled like a madman. In the mornings my cell floor was littered with balls of screwed-up sheets of A4 paper. But finally I had three pieces (words counted meticulously.) I posted them off first class and then waited. Eventually, a reply arrived.

"Thank you for your pieces," the editor wrote. "We can certainly use them in some form or other." At first, officials in the prison were far from encouraging. "If I was you I'd pick another pastime," said one senior teacher in the prison's education department when I approached her with my letter from the Guardian. An assistant governor was even more direct: "Well," he began, "I could give you one big no, or 50 small no's - but the answer would still be the same I'm afraid."

Happily though, prison service headquarters were more positive. When the Guardian explained what my contributions to the paper would entail and gave an assurance that prison rules governing prisoners' contact with newspapers would be rigorously adhered to, an official agreed to put the proposal to the prisons' minister. A few weeks later we got the good news: the minister was "content for this to go ahead".

It had taken a year to get official approval. It meant that I could telephone the paper whenever I needed to, so long as I had a phonecard. All seemed fine - except that now, of course, I had to start writing for real. It was a scary moment. If I had known then the internal agonies and the pressures I would end up experiencing while endeavouring to meet deadlines - phoning copy through in the midst of crises and dramas, sweating blood sometimes as I laboured over a final sentence - well, the truth is I would still have gone for it.

To order A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook (Guardian Books/Atlantic, £7.99), call the Guardian book service on 0870 066 7850.


Erwin James

The GuardianTramp

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