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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Gem of a Book
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...
Published on 26 Dec 2003 by Mr R B CLIFFE

versus
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
its an ok book,but took ages to arrive
Published 4 days ago by david riley


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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Gem of a Book, 26 Dec 2003
This review is from: A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook (Paperback)
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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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A human voice on the Spur., 31 Jan 2004
By 
Amazon Customer (Dublin) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook (Paperback)
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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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A realistic view of a lifer in the British prison system., 1 Mar 2008
This review is from: A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook (Paperback)
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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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you only read one prison diary, make it this one, 8 Nov 2003
By 
Dr W. Richards "wmr-uk" (Canada) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook (Paperback)
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.
wmr-uk
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still poignant now., 22 Feb 2009
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This review is from: A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook (Paperback)
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Welcome to real UK prison life, 15 May 2010
By 
Shaun Attwood (London) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook (Paperback)
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, 8 April 2013
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This review is from: A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook (Paperback)
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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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Learning the hard way - a life inside -, 20 Oct 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook (Paperback)
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars un-put-downable, 8 Nov 2011
By 
Daphne Jowit (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook (Paperback)
I was so impressed with this book, and enjoyed it so much, that I had to buy another copy (having lent my first one to someone who didn't want to return it!)
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Life Inside - Wonderful, 8 May 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook (Paperback)
This book is wonderful. It brought me joy, tears and wonder. How can such a voice emerge from a prison cell, I asked myself constantly as I turned each page. The power of the book, a collection of newspaper columns, is that its message transcends the prison environment and has a universal appeal. How many times I gasped as I felt that the moral of a story, a vignette of life on a prison landing, seemed to be directly related to my own life. I would thoroughly reccomend this book to anyone who feels the need to enquire into their own idea of humanity.
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A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook
A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook by Erwin James (Paperback - 10 April 2003)
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