Erwin James On Prison Life At Nottingham's Galleries Of Justice

By Ben Miller | 05 December 2008
A picture of a cell door with exit to cells written on it

(Above) The Impossible Prison. Photo by Andy Keate

Nottingham Contemporary’s The Impossible Prison has been an unusual and challenging exhibition for a number of reasons.

Set within the atmospheric abandoned police cells of the city’s award winning museum, The Galleries of Justice, it brings together 16 international artists from different continents to consider the shifting aesthetic and social role of incarcerates through the ages. It is inspired by Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault’s influential and bleak dissection of power, control and surveillance in our lives.

But it is the guest speaker in the final week of the show, Erwin James, who promises the sharpest insight and contemplation of the prison system.

James knows more about the subject than most. Jailed for life in 1984 following a family lifestyle described as “brutal and ruthless” by a prison psychologist, he embarked upon a series of columns for the Guardian newspaper, entitled Life Inside.

Now an impassioned critic of the government’s gluttonous attitude to prison size and capacity, he salutes the exhibition for its attempt to inform a population which, he says, “doesn’t really understand prison.”

“I never meant to become someone who wrote or talked about prison,” reflects James. “People are often surprised that somebody like me can articulate the issues, but I certainly don’t think I’m anything special. Having said that, most people who come out of prison don’t become Guardian writers.”

A picture of a sparse corridor leading through cells with a flickering television display for visitors

The Impossible Prison. Photo by Andy Keate

“How we use prisons is one of the most important issues for society at the moment,” he argues. “I’m really pleased to be coming up there and speaking from personal experience.

"When I discovered while I was in prison that I was a writer and then got the chance to write a column about prison life, that felt to me like opening a window on this secret world that people outside talked and read about a lot but didn’t know very well.”

His appearances are usually well received. “It seems to me that people have a view about prisons and prisoners and the issues, but then they rarely get the chance to engage in a rational way, their views come from reading the newspapers,” he observes.

“And so people get angry about things - they read about prisoners having Sky TV and living a luxury life, a holiday camp existence, and of course they’re angry about that. But when you engage with people and explain the reality of prison life and what it does to people, they seem to take that on board.”

One of the reasons why prisons so rarely release citizens who can flourish in the outside world is alluded to in James’s own story. Governors initially made strenuous attempts to prevent him from writing his column, revealing their indifference to the issue of offender rehabilitation.

A picture of a woman watching two large television displays with images of crime and punishment on them inside the museum

The Impossible Prison. Photo by Andy Keate

He is resolutely pragmatic rather than sentimental about the responsibility institutions have, but makes a compelling case for encouraging prisoners during their sentences. “We need to have a rational approach to people who don’t function well in society,” he says.

“I went to the governor and said ‘look, this is a fantastic opportunity, the first time in the history of British journalism a serving prisoner has been invited to write a newspaper column.’ He said ‘I can give you 50 small no’s or one big no.’ They did everything they could to stop me writing that column.”

It took a petition to persuade prison ministers to relent. “And then the governor said ‘look, my job in here is to keep you in here, hopefully give you a bit of education, keep you safe if we can, but we’re not sure how rehabilitated we want prisoners to be.’”

A picture of a cell door ajar leading to a bland cell with a chair and a flickering television screen inside

The Impossible Prison. Photo by Andy Keate

His positive vision for prisons, which he believes could be as valuable a community resource as schools or hospital, is contrasted by his pessimistic view of the government’s approach, which he feels treats prisons "like dustbins."

“We claim to be an advanced civilization, but our attitudes to crime and punishment are still medieval,” he says. His eloquent reasoning longs frustratedly for a more progressive global approach, but ultimately he’s just happy to be able to express his views at the Galleries of Justice, which he thinks are "an inspired venue".

"Who’d have ever thought when I went to jail 24 years ago that I’d be in a courthouse explaining to my community the reality of where they sent me?” he finishes. “I enjoy it, but it does feel like a duty, because there aren’t too many voices like mine.”

Read Erwin James's blog at www.erwinjames.co.uk

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