by Alex Bruce-Smith
To hear Erwin James speak, you might imagine he is a professor: eloquent, intelligent, humble. You would not think he is a man who spent 20 years behind bars for the brutal murders of two people in 1981. You would not think he is a man described by his sentencing judge as “brutal, vicious and callous”.
Speaking at the recent Festival Of Dangerous Ideas on Sunday, Erwin James, sentenced to life in a British prison, offered an inside perspective on the failings and the triumphs of the prison system that locks up the criminals and, at the end of their sentence, releases them back into the community. But the questions linger – how rehabilitated can society expect them to be? Can a killer make a good neighbour?
Erwin James was not born a murderer. In fact, he was not born Erwin James at all. James Monohan arrived in the world with the potential for a happy life. “Everyone is born with the capacity to be loved,” he says.
Once upon a time, he supposed he was happy, although he doesn’t seem to remember it. “I had a mother and a father and a house,” he says. After his mother was killed in a car accident, his father became a violent alcoholic. They moved frequently.
Erwin ran away from home when he was 10. The final straw came when one morning his father woke up in a mood and tried to slash his face with a glass bottle. “I’d had enough,” he says. “I left.”
He became a drifter, dividing his time between a children’s home, distant relatives, and life on the street. Later, his anti-social tendencies meant he lived between squats and prison.
In 1985, he was sentenced to life for the murders of two people: theatrical agent Greville Hallam and solicitor Angus Cochrane. The court case made headlines. Greville Hallam was found bound and naked in his bedroom, while Angus Cochrane was beaten with a brick and strangled. Both men had been mugged. The murders took place three months apart.
Erwin James pleaded not guilty but in four hours a jury decide otherwise. As he descended the stairs of the Old Bailey in London, he says he had a great sense of relief. His life was over. He was glad. In 2009, he wrote of his plea: “Despite my contrition, when it came to it, I just did not have the character to confess to such appalling behaviour, let along face the prospect of years in prison.”
The thing is, his life wasn’t over. He was to serve a minimum of 14 years – later increased to 25, then reduced to 20 – and at some point, he rejoined the civilised world.
To say he turned his life around in prison is to simplify the matter, but that’s what he did. Today he has two identities: murderer and columnist for The Guardian. He has been praised for his writing (“Compelling and intelligent,” says Daily Telegraph writer Barbara Amiel) and for his humanity (“Rare self-awareness, strength and intelligence,” says Irish novelist and screenwriter Ronan Bennett). And this was a man who, at 30, had received no formal education.
His therapist encouraged him to make use of the prison classrooms, sending him down a path that would one day lead to journalism. When he first approached The Guardian about writing a column (‘A Life Inside’, which would go on to become a regular favourite and lead to two book deals), prison officials were adamantly opposed. Prisoners are not allowed to contact the media, they said.
“But you support me in my journalism course!” James said.
“Yes, but we didn’t expect you to do any real journalism,” the prison officer said.
“But I’m a writer!” he cried.
“I think you’d better find another hobby.”
This tale highlights one of Erwin’s ongoing messages: “We, as a society, believe in the rehabilitation of prisoners, but we’re not sure just how rehabilitated we want them to be.”
It was writing for The Guardian that allowed Erwin to function in normal society upon his release. He had income, purpose, and education. He had people who – to his embarrassment – admired him. Many criminals are not so fortunate.
Despite initial protests, the column went ahead. It told the small stories of prison life, a social structure most never witness. All names were changed and all proceeds went to charity. “I’d never done anything good before. I was happy to give that to charity.”
And he speaks about the rehabilitation of prisoners at places like the Sydney Opera House. It’s not something society is manager well, he says. In the UK, almost half of the 800,000 adults leaving prison are convicted again within the year. In Australia, over half the prisoners incarcerated in June this year have been in gaol before.
As Erwin and Hamish Macdonald, a journalist at Network Ten, point out at their discussion at the festival, Norway’s Bastoy prison may have the answer. The world’s first ‘ecological prison’ encourages personal responsibility: all prisoners must work to support themselves. Whether it’s farming, timber processing, or even driving the ferry to the mainland, all of the 120 prisoners, many of whom are serving long sentences for violent crimes, must contribute to their well-being.
Their recividist rate? 16 per cent. It’s the lowest in Europe, and possibly the world.
According to Erwin James, the message is this: if prisoners want to learn, teach them. If they need therapy, help them. If they need skills, facilitate it.
The capacity for change is there. Most of the murderers Erwin knew in prison felt shame and remorse for their actions. He himself feels excruciating shame. He felt it when he ran away to join the French Foreign Legion, he felt it when the court celebrated his sentencing, he feels it every day of his life. When Hamish Macdonald makes reference to the many people who were affected by his crimes, he’s quick to correct him. “Are affected. People are still affected by my crimes.”
He feels shame speaking at the Sydney Opera House, in front of all these “decent people”.
There’s also the question of whether more needs to be done in childhood to prevent criminals being made. Erwin was arrested for the first time age 11. He had broken into a sweet shop.
From the back of the police car, he pleaded with the officers: “Don’t tell my dad! He’ll kill me!”
One of the officers turned around. “You deserve to be killed.”
The anguish on Erwin’s face is palpable when he recalls that story. “They didn’t need to charge me,” he says. “They could have given me a talking to.”
He was placed in a children’s home. “When I got there, they asked, what are you in for?” he said. It wasn’t a prison, but the children thought of it just the same. They weren’t planning to be doctors, or lawyers, or journalists. They were going to be criminals. Sadly, he says, for many, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One would expect Erwin to despise his father, but this is not the case. “I love my father,” he says. “I hate him, too. To love and hate someone at the same time is very strange. But he had his own demons.”
Erwin speaks warmly about the kindness shown to him by a prison guard who broke the news of his father’s death. In fact, he speaks warmly about several authoritative figures he met in prison; he regularly goes fishing with a retired guard.
“People are still people, even in prison.”
If rehabilitation is possible, he offers himself up as a scientific experiment, open to examination.
He even had to successfully pass a character test in order to qualify for a temporary visa (the Migration Act rejects all non-citizens with a “substantial criminal record” seeking to enter Australia). His successful application caused a certain number of outraged articles; people whose visas were denied in the past include rapper Snoop Dog and Holocaust denier David Irving.
Ann Mossop, curator of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, knew there would be those who’d find it “confronting and difficult” to attend a talk given by a murderer. Yet she brought him over anyway. “Obviously it’s going to be difficult for some people, but in a way that tells me that it’s something we need to be discuss,” she said on Ten Late News.
At the end of Erwin’s talk, the applause was thunderous.