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Monday, September 05, 2005

Prison life contrasted

A life again

Erwin James was serving a life sentence when the Guardian asked him to write regular dispatches from jail about his experiences there. He was released on parole last summer. Here, in his final column for G2, he reflects on the lessons that prison - and freedom - have taught him

Monday September 5, 2005
The Guardian

Last week, I met the man dubbed "America's toughest sheriff". Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa county, Arizona, was in Britain for a week to see if he had anything to learn from a criminal justice system that he regards as scarcely less luxurious than the Hilton hotel. The sheriff is famous in the US for his uncompromising attitude to those who break the law. His "tent city" prison in the Arizona desert - a permanent, high-fenced canvas compound - holds 2,000 prisoners in 130-degree heat without air conditioning. He puts men, women and children in chain gangs and uses them to clean the streets. His prison meals, he boasts, cost no more than the equivalent of 10p a head, and - a particular favourite punishment of the sheriff - he makes all his prisoners wear pink underwear. After all I had read and heard about him, I was, to be honest, a little apprehensive about our meeting, which took place at a programme for young offenders in east London. I expected an abrasive, unapproachable man who would have no time for the likes of me. Instead I found a charming character with a solid handshake and a ready smile.

Arpaio is not about to apologise for his methods. What did he think his chain gangs achieved, I asked him. "When good folks drive by, I want mothers to be able to say to their kids: 'Look at those bad people, honey. Behave or you'll end up just like them.'" Yet he admitted that arrests in Maricopa county remained steady at what to me sounds an alarming 300 a day, and that he had no evidence that his policies, many of which have been condemned by Amnesty International, had any reductive effect on reoffending rates. As far as I could tell, his only justification for the systematic humiliation and maltreatment of prisoners was the fact that he was responding to public will. "The public is my boss," he said. "I serve the public." On that ticket, he has been re-elected three times and served for 13 years.

I'm not convinced of the merits of Sheriff Arpaio's way. Last year, after serving 20 years of a life sentence in prison, I was released on parole. After a passage of two full decades, which took me from a standpoint of self-loathing and worthlessness to a position where I can look myself in the mirror and feel a measure of self-respect, I know that he is wrong.

Of course, many victims of crime would be only too glad for their tormentors to get a taste of Arpaio justice - and if no prisoners were ever released, it might not be such a cause for concern. But since all but two or three dozen will one day be somebody's neighbour somewhere, it seems sensible to me to ensure that all prisoners are treated in a way that tries to ensure they are better equipped and motivated to lead responsible, law-abiding lives once they are back on the streets. Considering where I'd come from, to end up having this conversation with the sheriff was almost unbelievable. I'm sure he would have struggled to grasp the magnitude of the journey that had taken me from condemned man to writer for a national newspaper.

What many people fail to understand is that convincing prisoners of their own worthlessness, which the Arpaio method is designed to do, is rarely necessary. When I walked through the prison gates at the beginning of my sentence, I knew I was the proverbial scum of the earth. At my trial I had experienced the full force of public condemnation and disgrace for my crimes. I was a guilty man, sentenced to mandatory life. The journey back to achieving a worthwhile life on the other side of the prison wall was going to be a long and difficult one. Further castigation and degradation were unnecessary. Not that the first prison officers I met as a freshly sentenced convict saw it that way.

I remember the encounter well. It was early evening in the reception area of one of the biggest prisons in London. I was locked in a small cubicle waiting to be "processed" when the shout rang out. "Next!" I had no idea it was aimed at me. There was more shouting and swearing, but I didn't know who it was directed at. All I knew was it was making me nervous.

Suddenly there was a tremendous rapping on the cubicle door. "Are you still fucking in there or what?" With my heart racing, I said yes, I was. The door opened and a laughing officer directed me to the front of a large counter with the baton he had obviously used to bang on the door. "Right, strip," said one of his colleagues. All three wore their caps with peaks slashed. When I was naked, an officer called for someone to bring me some kit, at which another prisoner appeared and handed me a too-small striped shirt, oversized denims, ill-fitting shoes, a pair of socks and some huge white underpants before retreating back to his room. Self-consciously, I dressed as fast as I could, then was ordered back into the cubicle to wait to be escorted to the wing.

The whole procedure had taken no more than a couple of hours, but the way I was treated in that short time determined my attitude towards prison officers for years to come. They made it clear that the prison was their domain and that I was going to be tolerated at best. No doubt Sheriff Arpaio would have approved. But I felt like one of the captured humans in Planet of the Apes, fearful and wary of my captors, who thought of me as another species entirely.

My first year in prison was spent in 23-hour-a-day solitary bangup. As well as having to face up to the wrong I had done, my lack of education, social skills and work skills meant that I had massive failings to overcome. I wanted to make progress, but I did not know where to start. To counter my feelings of helplessness and reduce my vulnerability, I exercised rigorously in my cell. Intimidation and violence between prisoners, during the brief periods in which we were unlocked, were widespread, while the culture of the prison officers was resolutely hard-line. As prisoners we held our defences high and trusted nobody. I was in no doubt that survival was my main concern. It was no place to inspire a man to better himself.

As the years passed, however, I learned that prisons were full of conflicting forces. A prison governor I met at my second jail, for example, told me: "My job is to get you back out there and functioning properly. That's what prison is for." These were powerful words for me to hear, and even now they ring clear in my memory. Though most of his officers would have disagreed, there were always a few who understood that prisoners were still human, and that all it took was a little respect and consideration to get the best out of us (they would invariably find themselves nicknamed "Care Bear" or "Mother Teresa" by their colleagues).

And gradually, as time passed, I came to believe that it was possible to become a better man than I had been. A couple of years into my sentence, a well-meaning professional persuaded me that I was capable of being educated; seven years later, with the support of various prison education departments, I had a degree. The instinctive rivalry among captives, endemic hard drug-related activity and the constant negotiating around the self-appointed punishers in the prison staff meant that there was no let-up in the general hostility of the environment for almost all of the 18 years I spent in closed prisons. I think this gave me a good taste of the mental equivalents of Sheriff Arpaio's chain gangs and desert heat, and it convinced me that if we kick people when they are down, we should expect little of value in return.

In 1999, after a series of coincidences and lucky breaks, the chance arose for me to write a column for the Guardian, a weekly account of the reality of prison life, to be called A Life Inside. At this stage I was a life prisoner with at least five years still to serve. I was weary of prison life, but my activities during earlier years had left me well prepared to take advantage of the opportunity.

The reaction of some members of the prison service to this opportunity highlighted the vagaries and absurdities of prison life. Even though, years earlier, when I had expressed an interest in journalism, the Prison Service had supported my application for funding for a course, the authorities in the prison I was in at the time were adamant that it wasn't going to happen. It wasn't until the prisons minister and the head of the prison service gave their personal approval that I was able to proceed.

On one occasion, shortly after I started the column, the governor was showing a visitor round. Stopping at my cell, he introduced the visitor and announced, apparently with some pride, "This is Erwin James. He writes for the Guardian." This emboldened me to ask a question I had been longing to ask of the "number one". I had been saving my prison wages, I told him, and wondered if I might be permitted to buy a word processor. "Oh no, no, no," he said. "The public wouldn't like that." Thankfully, one of his officers went out of his way to make sure I always had a plentiful supply of extra paper.

Six years later, I am a free man on life parole. And this is the last column I will write for G2, though I will continue to write for the paper in other guises. My life is no longer governed by cell walls and bars; now I look out each day on a big sky. With the encouragement of people who were prepared to help rather than hinder, I was able to turn my life around, and I'm grateful to the "do-gooders" whose kindness cancelled out those who, like Arpaio, believe there is merit in "getting tough". As far as I am concerned, I succeeded in making my prison time work in spite of most of what I encountered and not because of it.

Sheriff Arpaio and I parted on good terms with a warm handshake - and an invitation to tour his jails the next time I'm in Maricopa County. I felt, in spite of the chasm between us, that we had forged a mutual respect. But my experience has taught me that a society that offers hope of betterment and genuine rehabilitation to its prisoners is healthier than one that offers no hope at all.

· The Home Stretch and A Life Inside, Erwin James's collections of Guardian columns, are published by Guardian Books

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