Erwin James: “the battlefield within”

Erwin James, Editor-in-chief Inside Time, Tuesday 22nd August 2017, room C16, Girton College Cambridge, with a response from Dr Julie Parsons, University of Plymouth.

Response from Julie: Erwin talked with passion and feeling for an hour and a half. It was an emotional rollercoaster of a journey. He started with some questions; “how do you have a sense of belonging, when you don’t feel you belong?” “How do we care for people who have hurt us?” “Why is it right to do right and why is it wrong to do wrong?” In attempting to address these questions he took us on his own very personal and affecting journey. There were intense moments of shame, especially when the “scummy, cowardly crimes” that led to a life sentence for murder, were recounted and the judge’s words retold. These were difficult to witness, not least because they were so heartfelt. These moments were interspersed with references to literature and work by other writers. For example Erwin recommended John Healy’s The Grass Arena (2008, London: Penguin) and Ken Smith’s poetry in Wormwood ‘written when Smith was writer-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs prison. “Smith reports from the frontline of society’s ‘battlefield within’: the frontier between the haves and have-nots” (notes from the inside cover 1988: Bloodaxe Books). Indeed, the ‘battlefield within’ was something both Nick Hardwick and Erwin alluded to in their talks, though in relation to more contemporary prison problems arising from overcrowding and underfunding. For Erwin, when he was in prison, he was also battling with his inner sense of self and struggling to come to terms with his crimes.

One of the themes that struck a chord with the group was the notion that “everyone is lovable”, this was something Erwin’s prison psychologist ‘Joan’ had told him and it was her influence and the sessions he had with her in prison, that were to transform his life. Erwin eloquently explained how it had taken moral courage and strength to change, that he had wanted to “be a real person”, to be able to just “sit and be you”, to be a “human being”. He said, “we’re just failed people in there, failed people”. This was especially pertinent for Geraldine Brown, Jon Harvey and Sarah Hocking in the design of their zine. They called it ‘Beyond Bars’. Their focus merged elements of Erwin’s talk with that of Nick’s from earlier in the day. The front-page headline of the Inside Time, Erwin had brought with him said “UNSAFE” in big bold red letters, referring to the state of the current prison estate in the UK. Brown, Harvey and Hocking’s zine emphasised the interplay between structure and agency, again picking up on Erwin’s point about the need for prisoners to want to change (despite the difficulties of negotiating prison life). He said that “people should bring in” and “allow change”, that prisoners need to be “preparing for opportunity”. He said there were armies of people going in to prison every day and even if it took, ten or twenty times of being offered help before someone took that helping hand, it didn’t matter it still needed to be offered, there must always be opportunities to change.

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