Erwin James: The editor with a captive audience, a dark past and a mission to bring hope into prisons

Erwin James has something most editors would envy, a truly captive audience.

The former Guardian  columnist took over this year as editor of Inside Time, the free monthly newspaper for the UK’s prison population.

Shared newspapers for prison wings were abolished under the current government, only prisoners who have earned special privileges have TVs in their cells and digital disruption is not something that James has to worry about.

So for many the UK’s 85,000-strong prison population Inside Time is one of their main windows on the world outside their cell. And with acirculation of 60,000 it has saturation coverage of its target market.

James takes over from Eric McGraw who stepped down as editor at the end of last year after founding the title 25 years ago in the wake of the Strangeways prison riot. He was director of Lord Longford’s Newbridge Foundation prison charity and launched the newspaper because he felt one of the reasons for the riots was that prisoners did not have a voice.

James knows his patch well, having been released in 2004 after serving 20 years of a life sentence. What made him want to edit Inside Time, hasn’t he had enough of prisons?

He says: “When Eric was retiring I got an email asking if I knew anyone who was interested in this job as editor, I mentioned a few names – but then said ‘I’m the best man for the job’.

“They say you should write what you know about and I know about prisons.’”

James clearly feels honoured to be not just a working journalist, but an editor, something he could never have dreamed of doing back in his previous life as a criminal, and convict.

James wants to raise the Inside Time’s profile and get it read throughout the criminal justice system and beyond.

Talking me through the 52 pages of his first edition as editor he is clearly brimming with enthusiasm and pride for a newspaper which he believes has huge potential to improve the lot of prisoners.

The content includes:

  • An interview with outgoing chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick
  • Eight pages of letters (Inside Time receives more than 200 a month)
  • A comment piece condemning abuse at Medway children’s prison as exposed by Channel 4 Dispatches
  • An exclusive interview with the mother of a 14-year-old Medway inmate
  • A monthly column from one of the UK’s most famous former prisoners, Terry Waite
  • Coverage of the world’s first ecological prison on Bostoy Island in Norway
  • A column called The Secret Criminologist
  • Advice on how to achieve parole
  • A legal Q and A column by a lawyer
  • A fitness column called Cell Workout.

From the outset Inside Time has sought to support prisons whilst also holding them to account.

James says: “At first it was very critical of the way staff handled the Strangeways riot. Once it was banned from a couple of prisons it won respect from the prisoners straight away.

“I want to be a critical friend of the prison service. I want it to help our prison system to be more effective at getting people out better than when they come in.”

Amazingly, considering the fact that most of its readers have almost no disposable income, Inside Time is profitable: supporting half a dozen staff and returning a surplus to the Newbridge Trust. Flicking through the pages it is clear to see why, it is packed with adverts for lawyers (a source of income which has been diminished but not stopped by recent cuts to legal aid).

James believes one of the reasons most prisoners re-offend in their first year after release is  “because we don't know enough about what goes on in our prisons”.

He says: “The prison system needs to be beneficial for the prisoners for the sake of their victims. If you are in their fighting for your life you are not going to be able to get the new skills needed to make you more likely to succeed as a law-abiding citizen.”

James says prisons have become more secret places in recent years. His Guardian "A Life Inside column" has not been repeated and journalists have been barred from visiting prisons.

His own life sentence began after he was convicted in 1984 of two counts of murder alongside a co-defendant.

In his recently published autobiography, Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope, James touches on some of the issues around how far men such as himself can put their past behind them.

In it he recounts the words of his then governor shortly after his Guardian column began in 2000.

“I have to be honest. I’m amazed your getting away with it. I keep expecting a headline in the Mail saying ‘Has the world gone mad?’. I think I half expected that too.”

The governor reportedly went on: “As a society we believe in rehabilitation for prisoners – but the truth is, we’re not sure how rehabilitated we want them to be. We’re expected to give you some rehabilitation but anything that looks like you’re getting a treat or benefit from being prison gets peoples' backs up. You writing for the national press. That’s probably a little too much rehabilitation for some people to stomach.”

I met James in Farringdon, London, and he notes that he used to “sleep rough nearby and look through bin bags for food”.

His books details how a chaotic, impoverished and abusive childhood led to his lawless adult life and ultimately the two killings which saw him end up in prison. It then details how he was ultimately given the help in prison to come to terms with what he had done and learn the skills he needed to become a professional writer and journalist on his release.

The book does not go into any detail about the murders. They are only covered via the reproduction of a newspaper report of his conviction.

Asked why he did not write about his two most serious crimes, he says: “Sitting here with you I’d like to disappear into a hole in the ground talking about it. I’m so ashamed of my past but I’m not ashamed of who I am now.

“I thought the reader needs to know why I was in prison. But I've never had the desire to talk or write about my crimes. It would be totally inappropriate to do that. The people affected by my crimes are aware of what I am and what I do.

“I know it is going to hurt some people that I am still around. In prison I could have crawled into a hole and rotted. I felt I owe it to the victims to do the best I can, to be the best writer and editor and make the best newspaper I can.”

James’s full name is Erwin James Monahan, but he adopted a pen name when he began writing for The Guardian.

His full name (and past) came to light in 2009 when he was 'outed' online. He says that at that time a friend of one of the men he killed got in touch via email: “They were shocked to find out who I was. It was heart-breaking to read, all I could do was apologise.

“As long as I am doing something worthwhile every day, that justifies my existence.”

He says: “I have never asked for forgiveness, I'm not saying I wouldn't like to be forgiven but I don’t go there. The most I can hope for is to be redeemable – the name of the book.

“I was at the bottom – I couldn't imagine being like that now. Couldn't imagine living like that."

He believes that prison has to be about more than punishment and it is this belief that motivates him in his new job.

“If you are affected by a crime, you want vengeance.

“But if it is just about vengeance, if you damage people because they have damaged you, they are going to cause more damage when they go out of prison. The prison system should be there to try and make us safer.

“What happens in a prison so determines how someone is going to behave when they get out of prison.

“I don’t think any civilised society should lower itself to the barbarism of the criminal. I think we are better than that.

“With Inside Time I am trying to bring some hope into the prisoners, and for the staff as well who are trying to make them places where something good can happen so that we are safer out here."

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