A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook

Book Cover - A Life InsideBy Erwin James.
Atlantic Books
ISBN 1 903809 98 3

This book reproduces the stories of life in the British prison system as told by Erwin James in a weekly column for The Guardian over three years.

James writes with authority, having served 19 years when the book was published, in prisons throughout the country, which ranged from maximum security to open establishments.

His wealth of experience, together with a wonderful lightness of touch in writing about fellow inmates, make for a compelling and extremely moving read.

James writes about the good times (yes, for him at least) and the bad times – he made me laugh and cry – and this dual perspective gives weight to his arguments about the state of British prisons.

He lambasts the system’s failure to live up to the rehabilitative ideal and in no way covers up the violence and degradation he has witnessed.

Yet, at the same time, he never departs from the view that incarceration is both a necessary and just form of punishment. He also demonstrates through his own example and by describing success stories of other inmates he has known inside, not that “prison works” exactly, but rather that it could work if society wanted it to.

David Porteous is senior lecturer in applied social studies, University of Luton.

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