Erwin James: Where A Good Book Might Take You…

In prison you exist on dreams, nightmares and fantasies. When you are locked and isolated in a cell for twenty three hours out of twenty four you try to block the nightmares, enjoy the dreams and occasionally indulge in fantasies. I found this out after I was sentenced to life imprisonment and taken from the Old Bailey to Wandsworth prison in south London. With few apparent skills or abilities and almost insurmountable failings to overcome my prospects were bleak. It was impossible for me to try to rationalise my situation – or to reflect on the idea of change or personal development. The four walls contained me. I was so defeated that I lacked even the desire to be anything other than what I had become – little more than an inarticulate, ill-educated brute. The early weeks and months of my imprisonment provided no clues that a life spent in prison could ever remedy my deep-rooted inadequacies.

But at least I could read.

I had no strategy for how I was going to adapt to living my life inside. The routine in Wandsworth was mind-numbingly repetitious. The cell doors were opened for just a few minutes at a time each day: for slop-out (emptying the toilet bucket in a communal sluice) and to collect washing water and breakfast; for exercise – we were supposed to get half an hour outside each day to walk in a marked out circle in the yard, so long as the weather was not ‘inclement’ (a word I had never heard before I went to prison); to collect lunch; to collect the evening meal at around 4.30, and then briefly later in the evening when tea, nicknamed ‘diesel’ because of its foul consistency, was brought to the cell doors by an orderly and poured from a bucket into our plastic pint mugs. The times out of cell, though brief were long enough for incidents of violence to take place. A ‘nonce’ (sex offender) or a ‘grass’ (informer) being ambushed in the toilet recess area was a regular occurrence. Prison officers took their time to respond and rarely before serious damage had been inflicted on the victim. The loneliness was intense, yet I was glad of the solitude of my cell.

We were allowed one shower a week and one change of socks, underwear and shirt. Every Saturday morning we were taken six at a time to the prison library where we could choose six books. This was the most exciting hour of the week. Even though the choice was limited my desperation for reading material was great. I needed escape and so mostly I read Western paperbacks. Edge: The Loner was my favourite. When I grew tired of Westerns I tried novels by Stephen King, history books, ghost stories. All these books fed my imagination, but none made me think like the book I was sent by a friend: Prisoners of Honour by David L Lewis.

The book was about a Frenchman called Alfred Dreyus. Dreyfus was a Captain in the French army, a Jew, who had been subjected to the most incredible injustice imaginable. Wrongly accused and convicted of spying for Germany, Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1894 and shipped out to spend the rest of his life on a tiny island ten miles off the coast of Guyane Française. Devil’s Island was the smallest of the three Salvation Islands, so called because early French settlers, suffering from tropical diseases and malnutrition, found refuge there and managed to survive.

Successfully made it to the island today: 8 September 2006

ISLE DU DIABLE, photograph by Martin Argles of the Guardian

But there was no salvation for Dreyfus – only a specially built prison measuring just a few metres square. Through the bars of the single window he often looked out over the Atlantic Ocean. I imagined him holding those bars, squeezing them tighter and tighter in agonising frustration at the wrong that had been done to him. Dreyfus was a loyal soldier and servant to France. He was a man of the highest integrity with a methodological attitude to his work and his ambition. ‘Until now,’ he wrote in his prison diary, ‘I made a cult of reason. I used to believe in the logic of things and events. Finally I used to believe in human justice!’ He was a fine soldier, one of the finest in the French officer class – and he was also a loving and devoted husband and father to his two young children. The strain of his predicament is palpable in his letters to Lucie, his wife. ‘When I promised you to go on living, when I promised to bear up until my name has been vindicated, I made the greatest sacrifice possible for a man of feeling and integrity.’

This good man’s only ‘crime’ was to have been a Jew. For this his colleagues were prepared to join against him in a conspiracy of falsehoods and deceit, even though the evidence against him was tissue thin. Even when it became clear he was innocent, powerful men – from ministers of state to generals and brigadiers – held against him; their justification was to preserve the honour of the French army and ultimately the legitimacy of the government itself. If Dreyfus were to die a wretched death on Devil’s Island then so be it. These men were the Prisoners of Honour.

Before prison I had never considered that truth might be revered. From an early age I had lived a life outside of community, on the edge of society. Truth, justice, integrity and courage were ideals to which I never paid any heed. Corrupted as a boy, without roots or direction I drifted through the years doing as much as I needed to survive, regardless of the cost to others. By the time I’d been sentenced to life I was so far adrift I believed there was never going to be any way back. Any notion that I might experience a meaningful future would have been absurd. I was finished.

Life imprisonment had brought my painful, pain-causing life to an end – and I was glad of it.

But the courage of Alfred Dreyfus made me think in a way I had never thought before. He survived more than four years of isolated desolation, suffering fevers, rheumatic spasms, malnutrition and almost deathly depression – so severe at one point that he commented in his diary, ‘How happy are the dead’. His treatment at the hands of the authorities worsened. For months he was shackled to his bed from sunset to sunrise, ‘like a mounted insect’ and his guards were ordered to harass him by talking loudly around him and to march noisily about his little prison at night.

devils island

ALFRED DREYFUS’S PRISON, photograph by Martin Argles of the Guardian

The Minister of Colonies knew Dreyfus was deteriorating and had a quantity of embalming fluid shipped to the penal settlement’s Commandant, in case of his demise. Yet his diary records that he never gave up on his country. ‘I hope that this horrible torture ends soon – if not, I leave my children to France, the motherland that I have always served with devotion and loyalty’.

Thanks to the campaigning of courageous men, in particular the writer Émile Zola, the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus was eventually set aside and after four years, two months and five days on Devils’ Island he was brought back to France. Two re-trials followed and finally in 1906 he was exonerated. Later he was decorated with the Legion of Honour – the most distinguished award his country could offer. His story, as told by David Lewis, was at the same time terrible and magnificent – but it was the way Dreyfus managed his suffering which impressed me most – me, who had never valued courage, integrity or truth.

It was the courage of Dreyfus that ignited my wildest fantasy.

In my Wandsworth cell I imagined that one day if I lived long enough and again tasted freedom, I would visit Devil’s Island and walk in his steps. I would go to his prison and think about him and his suffering and his courage. I would hold onto the bars and look out over the Atlantic just as he had done. I would try to feel his presence and breathe in his imprisoned air. I’d squeeze the bars and try to find some truth of my own.

It was an outrageous fantasy. My prison cell had three sets of bars on the small window set high up on the back wall. I shat in a bucket and slept on a metal cot with a stinking wafer-thin mattress and laid my head on half a sponge pillow. I had scarcely a spoon of hope, just a table and a chair and my six pathetic books a week. But I took some vicarious moral lessons from Dreyfus’s torment. The mire I had buried myself in was a little less engulfing when I thought about Alfred Dreyfus and fantasised about one day sharing his precious space.

Wandsworth Prison D2 Landing


I spent the first year of my sentence locked in that cell for twenty three hours a day until I was shipped out to my first high security prison which proved to be a place of possibilities. Here there was a chapel, a gymnasium, workshops and an education department. There were people who worked there who wanted to help men like the man I had become. A psychologist said to me, ‘While you are in prison you must try and educate yourself.’ I said, ‘I am too thick for education’. I was almost thirty years old. She said angrily, ‘Nobody is “thick”! We all have potential. We all have the ability to become who we want to be, who we should be’. I said, ‘Even me?’ She didn’t answer, just looked at me disdainfully. It was a look that forced me to apply to attend evening classes. I chose the English class as I remembered that before I was corrupted, when I was still a good little boy, I liked English. One of my favourite books had been My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell who coincidentally had fed my childhood fantasies with the story of his idyllic childhood growing up on the Greek Island of Corfu. Nobody else outside school noted this odd ability and when I left after just a few years of sporadic attendance it faded into nothing more than my secret good thing.

The English teacher in prison was young and pretty and gave me good marks for my work. ‘I’m putting you in for an exam,’ she said. ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Do you think I’ll pass?’ She thought I was joking. But I did pass, with a Grade A. I couldn’t wait to show my O level certificate to the psychologist. ‘We all have potential remember. Just do your best… you owe it to your victims.’

Years passed and despite the varied and challenging vagaries of life on prison wings and landings I passed more exams. The prisoner hierarchy I learned is a realm with no rules. A riot, a siege, a food revolt, a sit-down protest in the exercise yard – suicides, murders, helplessness and cruelty – the worst of human nature bubbling along from year to year, with only moments of kindness, compassion, generosity and sacrifice. The psychological toll of prison life is heavy – the mental pressures intense. People being good and people being bad on both sides of the divide. Through it all I became known as ‘the man who can write a good letter’. It was a title I liked. It helped me to survive. Writing letters for others who were less literate than I enabled me to provide a service for my community – something I had never done before. I involved myself in writing groups, helped to publish prison magazines, wrote letters to newspapers. While my role as camp scribe flourished, I indulged in another fantasy. If my life had been different perhaps I could have been a writer, maybe a journalist. Unlike my Dreyfus fantasy this one had some merit – it became a dream.

‘If I live long enough and if I ever again taste freedom…’

Despite my naïve ability to string words together the chances, in fairness, of such a dream becoming a reality were slim. And then in 1994, ten years after I was sent to prison, I wrote an article for the Independent newspaper and it was published. They asked for another and that was published too. Still the vagaries of prison life persisted and still I wrote. An article for the Guardian newspaper sent on spec was published in 1998 – and then in 1999 an extraordinary stroke of fortune occurred. A warm, good-natured probation officer paid me a visit. Richard expressed an interest in how I spent my time in prison. ‘I like to write,’ I said. He seemed impressed. ‘My next door neighbour is a writer,’ he said, ‘His name is Ronan Bennett.’ I knew that Ronan Bennett was an Irish writer who had been imprisoned when he was 18 years old for a murder he hadn’t committed and had spent two years in Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland.

I’d read a book that Bennett had helped to write called Stolen Years by Paul Hill, one of the people convicted of the Guildford Pub Bombing of 1974 who was sentenced to life imprisonment – and later cleared of all charges and released after serving 15 years. I had also read a novel by Bennett called, The Second Prison. We talked about Ronan Bennett’s writing. Clearly I was a fan. ‘Why don’t you drop him a line?’ Richard said. I did and so began an earnest correspondence. A year or so later I had a message from the landing officer to call Ronan. ‘It’s urgent,’ said the officer.

When I called him Ronan told me that he had been talking to an editor at the Guardian. ‘He’s looking for a serving prisoner to write a regular column about prison life for the paper,’ he said, ‘and I’ve told him about you.’ Ian Katz was then the editor of G2, the paper’s features section. I sent him some articles that I thought might work as columns. He wrote back to me and then came to see me. ‘Well, you can write,’ he said, ‘but I need to know more about you and about why you are in here.’ It was a tense visit. I’d never met a newspaper editor before. He was a family man, a professional man who exuded integrity. Instinctively I respected him. I hated having to discuss the worst aspects of myself with him – but I wanted him to know me and to trust me and so I opened up and told him the truth. I wondered after the visit whether he would still want me to write for him. It was a big responsibility he was taking on, a big risk, to his reputation and to that of his newspaper.

Each day following Ian Katz’s visit I waited anxiously for the post. A week passed before my name appeared on the letter board outside the wing office. I stuck my head in the door and saw an envelope on the desk bearing the Guardian logo. ‘Cheers Guv,’ I said as the landing officer passed it to me. I raced back to my cell and tore it open. Katz was polite but brief. ‘It was nice to meet you,’ he wrote, ‘We’d like you to write three columns of 800 wds to start. We’ll call it A Life Inside.’

The governor responsible for lifers was unimpressed when I asked for his approval to write the column. ‘I’ll give you fifty small nos or one big no but the answer will be the same,’ he said, ‘I suggest you get another hobby.’ We argued. He stonewalled. I picked up the evidence of my modest writing achievements that I had spread on his desk and began slipping them back into my folder. I was about to slope out of his office when I remembered the distance learning journalism course I had done a few years earlier on the back of my first article in the Independent – with the support and encouragement of the Prison Service. ‘Hang on a minute,’ I said. I pulled out the course diploma and showed it to him. ‘You encouraged me to do this.’ He looked a little shame faced, lowered his eyes and said,

‘We didn’t expect you do to any real journalism.’

Persistent and determined I wrote to the home office, supported by Ian Katz and eventually the then prisons minister Paul Boateng agreed I should be allowed to write the column. ‘I’m content for this to go ahead,’ were his precise words. The inaugural column appeared in February 2000, entitled: ‘How Beggsy fell out with Bob’ – a little vignette about a fall out over a newspaper between two prisoners in neighbouring cells. It was the first column of its kind in the history of British journalism. I received £20 a month from the Guardian for phone cards so I could telephone in my copy to the copy takers from the wing phone booth. The money the paper paid for the column went to charity. I wrote the column from my prison cell for four and a half years and then in August 2004, exactly twenty years to the day since I had been taken into custody, the parole board ordered my release.

When I stepped out through the prison gate on that hot August day and breathed free air for the first time in two decades I had no sense of triumph. Those twenty years barely made a dent in the debt I owed my victims. But I had done my best and now I had to learn to live again. Writing helped. I wrote more columns for the Guardian and then tried my hand at features and interviews.

Prison was almost always my theme – the one thing I knew about more than anything else. Inside I was fearful of it, but mastered it sufficiently to survive it. Outside I became fascinated by it – and I never forgot about Alfred Dreyfus.

In 2006, just over two years after my release from prison I pitched an idea to the Guardian Features editor, by then Katherine Viner. ‘Kath,’ I said, ‘this year is the centenary of the exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus. Would you consider me visiting his prison on Devil’s Island and writing about it for Guardian readers?’ Her response was positive and within a month I was high in the sky on my way to Guyane Française, accompanied by Guardian photographer Martin Argles.

We landed at Cayenne, the capital, and made our way by hire car to Kourou, the departure point for tourists to the Salvation Islands. I asked around at the harbour – a patch of wasteland with access to a couple of river pontoons – to see if I could get a boat ride to Devil’s Island. Though trips were available to Royale Island and from there to St Joseph’s Island it was made clear to me that going anywhere near Devil’s Island was ‘strictement interdit’. So the next day we headed for Royale on a tourist catamaran. When the islands appeared in the distance I asked the skipper’s mate what the chances were of us getting on Devil’s Island. ‘Pas bon,’ he said. Drawing closer, the lush greenness of the three islands seemed to glow under the dazzling blue sky. To me they looked magical. Once our boat was anchored in the tiny harbour we disembarked and made our way up to what had once been the guards’ mess hall which would be our accommodation for the night.

The next day we toured the island, inspecting the site of the guillotine and the old prison barracks. The prison buildings are entangled with jungle overgrowth, but surprisingly well preserved. Picking my way through the narrow corridors, avoiding the tribes of fire ants and massive cobwebs, the vines and the rampaging tree roots, I was struck by the quantity of rusting iron. Scattered everywhere are pieces of chain, steel bars, bolts and fetters.

Inside The Crimson Baracks

INSIDE THE CRIMSON BARRACKS, photograph by Martin Argles of the Guardian

I asked the captain again if he would take me across the shark-infested channel to Devil’s Island. ‘Non,’ he said, but agreed to ask his friend who knew some fishermen from neighbouring Suriname who fished the waters. An hour or so later I heard a voice call out from the harbour. ‘Monsieur!’ The captain’s friend had spoken to the skipper of a passing pirogue, a kind of motorised dug-out canoe. The skipper and his two-man crew who had sailed all the way from Paramaribo agreed to put Martin and I on to Devil’s Island and would collect us 30 minutes later for €100 – about £70. ‘It’s a deal,’ I said.

I was grateful the skipper was a master navigator. As he edged his vessel through the violent swells of the crystal-green sea towards the rocks the dangerousness of our venture hit home. When we were less than six feet from Devil’s Island preparing to disembark I understood why it had been so difficult to persuade anyone local to bring us here. ‘Allez!’ shouted the second mate, pointing at the one flat-faced rock among the jagged mass. There was no time to hesitate and no turning back. I jumped and Martin followed.

Within a few adrenaline-pumped minutes we had scrambled over the rocks and entered the thick jungle undergrowth, almost immediately getting tangled up in the huge sticky cobwebs that hung all around. Panic began to rise in my chest as hand-sized spiders appeared from nowhere and dashed blindly over me. I felt bites on my legs and arms, but kept running, faster, slipping and sliding on ground knee-deep in rotting coconuts while Martin raced after me. At last we broke into a clearing, and there, 20 paces ahead of us stood the one-man prison of Alfred Dreyfus. I stopped running and walked nervously towards the tiny stone building. The iron barred gate, rusting and bent, hung open. I walked inside and breathed in the cool air. I looked around for a sign that might tell of his ordeal, a plaque perhaps to mark his courage. But there was nothing.

devils island

DREYFUS’S PRISON AND ERWIN JAMES, photograph by Martin Argles of the Guardian

As I paced his stone floor and looked out through his window bars, I was exhilarated but at the same time troubled by the pervading sense of deprivation. I grasped his window bars and stared out across the Atlantic ocean…




Just before Christmas last year I tracked down an email address for David L Lewis – I should say Pulitzer Prize winner Professor David Levering Lewis – and wrote to him: ‘Dear Professor Lewis – I hope you don’t mind me contacting you out of the blue – but for many years your book, Prisoners of Honour, has been a huge influence in my thinking. I am a writer and journalist, mainly for UK’s The Guardian newspaper. I was sent to prison for life in 1984. My first year was in isolation and I was allowed six books a week from the prison library. But the book that had the most impact on me was your book, sent to me by a friend. I vowed if I ever got out of jail alive I would visit Devil’s Island and see where brave Dreyfus was confined. There was little hope I could ever learn to live among civilised society again – but against the odds I did. And not only that I made it to Devil’s Island and stood for some moments in Dreyfus’ prison. I just wanted you to know that it was your book that inspired me to want to make that journey. Thank you.’

To my amazement I received a reply. ‘Dear Mr. James, Yours is the first verifiable evidence I think I’ve received that one of my books ever did anybody much good. Be assured that your special appreciation of Prisoners of Honour will stay with me forever. I envy your satisfaction – sense of closure, it must have been – of setting foot on Devil’s Island. Let me thank you again for taking time to send your ‘out of the blue’ memoir. It is surely one of the most arresting messages of the Christmas season I expect to receive. Best wishes, David Levering Lewis.’

After reading his email I cried for the first time in a long time. It marked the end of a journey that began in that miserable Wandsworth prison cell when my friend sent me a book. He had written inside, ‘You never know where a good book might take you…’


More: read our writers’ recommendations for books to send to a friend in prison, ‘Beat the Ban!’



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