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on 26 December 2003
The book contains a series of self-contained articles about prison life as observed by a 'lifer' approaching the end of a long sentence. They could be described as vignettes of the personalities and peculiarities of prison life; an existence about which most of us are ignorant. They are superficially an easy and entertaining read but you quickly find yourself gripped by the predicament of those at the very bottom of 'society's heap'. Erwin James writes beautiful prose and his own story, communicated through this book, is an inspiration.
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on 1 March 2008
Erwin James did not write his memoirs to gain sympathy, or to cry "I'm innocent" ... he simply wrote of his day to day life and experiences in diary form. A gripping book, his characters come to life as he describes different incidents that he encountered in his twenty years inside. At times hilarious and at other times sad, we enter a world where danger is never far away, where a simple breaking of prison "rules" can be as serious as contravening the official rules, where a hard shell is essential for survival.
Erwin's journey was hard, but along the way he learnt that hope for a better future was in his won hands and that with the right attitude, he could emerge at the end of it a better person.
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VINE VOICEon 31 January 2004
I first started to read Erwin James in my copy of the Guardian every two weeks, and if he was not in the paper I found myself disappointed. James does not in this book dwell on himself or his crime which he is sent to prison for life for. Life as he was to learn on seening it stamped on a folder was 99 years. His tarif was 25 years changed to 20 and by the time he begins writing he has been behind bars for over a decade.
We all think we know something about prison life you know the common presceptions. They use phonecards, they have so many visits a week and so on. But on reading this book you learn what it is really like to be inside and it takes it one more step by introducing us to that unknown group of people called "lifers". It tells us of the closed conditions of the maximum security prisons where you eat, drink and even think when they tell you to. It introduces us to men who for one reason or another have been sent away for the rest of their life. And each one deals with the tarif set in very different ways some surrive, more don't. James wants no sorrow from you, he is grateful for what prison has given him. He has been educated by the prison system. He is thankful for the kind prison officers and others who have advanced him a kind gesture. He agrees with the ideals of the prison system but as only someone who has used the system and knows it he points out its failings. And indeed the failings of the Home Office and authority. He is grateful for the Home Sec. who showed his human side by putting his trust in a lifer and rewarding him with £5.00.
I am glad to say Erwin James surrvied the dispersal prisons, the spurs and the strips to write. Long may he do so.
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on 22 February 2009
Still poignant now., 22 Feb 2009

I have just finished reading A life Inside, as part of research into life inside, and I have found this book to be the best I have read so far and the most truthful. It states clearly, without emotion the impact on someone's life when they are sentenced to a period of incarceration. It is written with honesty and sincerity. A must read for anyone who would like a glimmer of what it maybe like. Although at times I feel the amazing sense of optimism Erwin James manages to maintain within himself through his experiences may give some readers, who know nothing of our outdated and still often brutal penal system, a false belief it really does work!
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on 8 November 2003
In the early 1980s, Erwin James - a pseudonym - was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was in his early twenties at the time. What his crime was we are never told, and nor is it relevant to this account, although James himself never tries to minimise it, making clear that he believes that he deserves his punishment. We're also told that he had a 'tariff' of twenty-five years, later reduced to 20. In 2000, James began writing a series of fortnightly columns for the Guardian newspaper, on life as a 'lifer' in the prison system. It is these columns, or those printed up to January 2003 (James continues to write for the Guardian) which are published in this collection.
James, in his first couple of years writing for the Guardian, was not paid; a note at the bottom of each column read: 'Erwin James is serving a life sentence. He has not been paid for this column'. At that point, the fee went to charity, but once James was moved to open conditions and permitted to engage in paid employment, the fee was held in trust for him. Surprisingly, in 2003 the Press Complaints Commission criticised the newspaper for running the column and for paying a serving prisoner for writing; given the plaudits the newspaper has received, and which have been lavished on this book, by people such as Martin Narey, Director of the Prison Service, that decision by the PCC was astounding.
In his columns, James shows the reality of life inside high- and medium-security prisons in a way other, more high-profile, prison memoirs fail to do. We meet fellow prisoners - all pseudonymised - and experience their hopes and disappointments through the clarity of James' writing. He doesn't look for sympathy, and it's clear that he supports the aims of the prison system, but at the same time his accounts leave the reader understanding that it is possible to believe both in the merits of prison as a rehabilitative function and in the need for comprehensive reform. The book is entirely devoid of self-pity; instead we find often harsh accounts of prison life, but interspersed by humour and 'human interest' stories.
We meet Cody, who for the duration of the 20 years he spent 'inside' has protested his innocence; we learn that he has just been released on licence and given leave to appeal. But James also ensures that we understand the unpredictability of the appeal system - it seems as if Cody has little chance of success. (In fact, a recent Guardian column revealed that Cody was successful after all, though given his state of health he may not have much opportunity left to enjoy his freedom).
The effects of the iniquitous tariff system are shown when, in 1994, lifers were finally told the tariffs which had been set by the Home Secretary in their cases: prisoners who had been making progress towards rehabilitation suddenly learned that they faced twice as long remaining on their sentence than they'd anticipated, or in some cases that they would never be released. Some of those receiving bad news on that occasion then committed suicide. Similarly, highlighting another area ripe for reform, James tells us of lifers released on licence who had been recalled to prison for a minor misdemeanour - or, in one case, having been prosecuted for something for which the jury took eight minutes to acquit! - and then faced many more years in prison.
Occasionally, James gives advice to other prisoners as to how to survive a long stretch inside. One thing he doesn't say, but which comes across very clearly from this account, is that without hope it's simply not possible to survive. His preferred piece of advice, however, is: 'Learn to live where you are, and not where you think you want to be.'
James is now, as he was at the date of the final column in this book, in an open prison, in paid employment. In due course, therefore, he should be released on licence and, as Ian Katz, the editor of the Guardian supplement which publishes James' columns and who writes a foreword to this book, notes, he now as a 'well-established career as a writer and journalist'. I hope to read much more of James' work in future, once he is released - and I hope that the Guardian also recognises its responsibility towards the man who has written for the newspaper for the past three years and enhanced its reputation in the process.
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on 15 May 2010
Erwin has done a serious amount of time, and it shows in his deep understanding of prison culture as described in this book. Unlike Archer whose short-term stay in Erwin's world resulted in more of a glance at the surface, Erwin really takes the reader there with a series of superb anecdotes. I classify this as one of the best reads in the genre.
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VINE VOICEon 25 January 2016
I read a lot of prison experience books and this book was recommended to me by Amazon. I don't regularly read the Guardian and had never read any of Erwin James' columns. The author's name was familiar to me though and I know that since his release he has gone on to work within the prison campaigning world.
This book is a collection of his columns written over three years, from 2000 to 2003.
The writing is very intelligent and all still relevant to the prison system today - whilst changes are always happening, they are very slow.
Sitting down and reading the columns one after another in a book is not how they were designed to be read and they are disjointed when experienced like this as topics change from week to week. I suspect that I would have been addicted to this writer had I read one each week but in
the form of a book the writing does not flow as well as it could.
Put the style aside though and Erwin James is a great writer. He boldly expresses his opinions based on his time served and tells both good and bad in a well balanced way. He talks very openly about opportunities available whilst also acknowledging many reasons why people are not able to grab at chances.
Each week, the author is able to look at topic from tiny minutiae of prison life to the broader issues of rehabilitation and punishment in general. I now know that the author has written a proper memoir which is due to be published in Feb 2016 which I will be buying...
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on 8 April 2013
As an academic I am only too aware how biographical accounts of prison life, written by prisoners are an invaluable addition to the academic literature we already have. This book is written in an eloquent way and a pleasant surprise that the book is not all about Erwin, but more about the characters he met along the way and the ups and downs of prison life. Fantastic book that will be cited in many other pieces of work.
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on 20 October 2003
This is a fascinating and intelligently crafted series of observations reproduced as a book. Amazing to relate that it has taken until now to have such a viewpoint of prison life. Some years ago I provided community work for a group of prisoners from the local jail. They did forest work and building maintenance projects as well as cleaning and painting. I soon learned that the prisoners I came in contact with on a daily basis were the same vulnerable people like you and I, with a multitude of skills, who wanted the opportunity to do something positive with their lives. The author’s achievement is massive in many ways because as well as overcoming the internal focus of his own incarceration he uses the experience positively to take us on a “shared journey” into the frailties of the prison system through his own encounters and the often frustrating circumstances of long term prison associates.
The book is a composite of Guardian articles and herein would be my only criticism because the content is reproduced in the convention of a newspaper column. The stories are conveniently short and light on detail leaving more questions than answers. I was left wanting to know more about the life in-between the space where nothing happens.
On a positive note the individual stories highlight the importance and inadequacies of corrective rehabilitation and the “risk factors” associated with prison life. This is a book for everyone with an interest in humanity.
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on 20 April 2015
The book’s opening is explosive. He begins with the verdict of the jury at the Old Bailey and it is scary stuff. Plus it leaves you wondering what kind of life this man must have had if he felt ‘relief’ after getting handed a life sentence! Well the book doesn’t necessarily delve too much into his past, but rather focuses on his day to day life in prison. It’s divided into three sections. His time in ‘closed conditions’, followed by a section called ‘reason and rehabilitation’ which offers some fascinating insights into the prison reform system, and finally ‘open conditions’. Overall the book chronicles three years – from early 2000 to early 2003. So whilst it’s a small fraction of his life sentence, he still captures the essence of serving all that length of time and its effects on his mind and body.

He never specifies his crime but it’s not difficult to guess which crime(s) warrant a life sentence. Plus a quick search on the internet will reveal it – if you’re so inclined to learn more. Which I think is worth doing as Mr James turns out to be a fascinating person. Indeed, I think there are very few ex-prisoners who can capture prison life and conditions so succinctly. It is a testament to how he turned himself around in prison. There is one part of the book where he says he decides he is going to ‘live’ or carve out some kind of life for himself behind bars and make the time work for him. And he does. It’s a redemptive story and totally intriguing.

Whatever your feelings about him, I applaud his efforts, I applaud the prison service for letting him continue his journalism and for the Guardian for publishing his journals. After reading this book, you’ll be so glad for your liberty. Every time you leave your home for a simple walk down the road is a luxury not to be taken lightly. At least, I think so after reading this.

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