I had the privilege of attending one of the most explosive debates on recidivism and the reintegration of convicted criminals back into society at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas last weekend. When I first read that a double convicted murderer, Erwin James, was coming to Australia to speak I wondered what it would be like to hear his experience of 20 years behind bars for taking the lives of two men.
When he walked on stage and began speaking, I could see remorse ingrained in his face which was permanently furrowed, he never smiled and spoke softly and slowly. I didn’t know how I was going to feel about his views and whether I would agree…whether he deserved the treatment he got in prison and again on release…by the end of the discussion I had some respect (for a murderer?) for his struggle and for his views on recidivism.
Erwin James’ life became troubled at age 10 when his mother was killed in a car accident. His father, unable to cope, became an alcoholic and was abusive toward Erwin, at one stage pushing his head into the fire for smiling. Erwin was convicted of burglary at age 10 after stealing from a sweet shop…he then left home to sleep on the streets, unable to handle his father’s rage. He was moved into a boys home where he fast learned the tricks of the trade leading him on a downward spiral and a life on the streets filled with crime. He by no means was justifying his crimes but painted the picture of a troubled childhood which played a role in his perception of right and wrong.
He didn’t talk much about his crimes, understandably, but wanted to focus on ‘life on the inside’ and whether society wanted criminals to be able to effectively reintegrate into society upon release.
Erwin suggested that if prisoners are in there forever we don’t need to pay as much attention to recidivism but the fact is many prisoners are released and the chances of reoffending are high, at least 60% in the UK, 50% in Australia.
He described prison as a place where you ‘live inside your head’, initially he was in a cell for 23hrs a day. It was here he would try and work out why he did what he did. The prison psychologist helped him understand that all people are born loveable and aren’t inherently bad people…and so he began to untangle his dysfunctions. He recalls seeing a photo of himself as a young boy with a cowboy hat on and wondered where it all went wrong.
It was a long and difficult 20 years with many prisoners taking their own life (1247 he recalls in great detail) ‘a place of fear where people were struggling’. He was moved to a longer term maximum security prison and was able to then use workshops, the chapel, a gym and saw more possibilities. He joined an English class which was important to be able to exercise his mind again.
Prison was a land of hierarchy and unwritten rules with someone being stabbed every other week. He experienced a major riot and a siege but he hung on to hope and books. The prison psychologist told him that he owes it to his victims to ‘do the best you can in here’.
He became known as ‘the guy who could write a good letter’ and started writing letters for other inmates to lawyers, family, complaints for people. He started to feel good that he was able to contribute to a community and knew that if he ever got out he would want to make a positive contribution to society. He saw writing as an enabler, allowing him to find a way to live again and walk the middle line between his past and future. He was chronically inhibited in prison and needed to feel secure again.
He was asked to write for the Guardian Newspaper a column on ‘life inside’. This was an opportunity for Erwin to apply himself and have a second chance at life and is where he has been employed since.
Prison as a deterrent
Naturally, the question was raised that conditions in prison should be tough so its a deterrent to those choosing to commit crimes. Erwin explained that he absolutely agrees that prison shouldn’t be a playground but that ultimately these people are going to be released and if we don’t want them continuing to harm members of society upon release they need to live in a way that is not going to impact their actions upon release. ‘Prison crushes you, undermines, erodes and corrodes you and dismantles your humanity’. You may get released but the debt you owe the victims and their families even after 20 years inside will never be repaid, and having that on your conscience is a true life sentence.
The question was raised around Erwin’s troubled childhood and it was agreed that early intervention from social services and the right education and support is key to ensuring criminality doesn’t result.
Victims and their families
Erwin at no point felt that his crimes should be excused, he raised some interesting views on what next after serving your time… A criminal record will always stay with him and even minimised his chances of getting a visa to come to Australia to speak. However he just tries to ‘do the best he can’ with what time he has left on the outside. Inside he hoped that he would live to see just one more sunny day…
Can people change? Can we forgive?
In Norway there is a prison called Bastoy that sees only 16% of its inmates reoffending upon release. However, it is argued that Norway with its relatively small population, egalitarian nature and high quality of life within the community play a role. Its here prisoners are given responsibility, for example through farming on site.
Hearing first hand from a convicted criminal was enlightening. It changed my perspective on our prison system. Ultimately there are some criminals that will continue to reoffend and cause major harm in the community and shouldn’t be released and Erwin acknowledges this. Conversely, there are many people imprisoned that commit fraud and other smaller crimes that probably don’t deserve to live in such circumstances and can be rehabilitated and deterred in different ways. However, there are others that will be released and upon spending sometimes decades in a hardened prison won’t be able to function in society as we know it.
People are people ultimately and its up to society as to whether they want to keep prisoners in there for life, or even capital punishment like in the US, but the fact remains many prisoners are currently released so its up to us to decide how they are treated in prison to reduce recidivism.