If you’re reading this as an undergraduate, it’s likely that Erwin James served longer in prison than you’ve been alive. I’ve been to many talks in Oxford, but there have been few more powerful than this one, held by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

In 1985 James Monohan, James’ real name, was sentenced to life with a minimum of 14 years for the brutal murders of theatrical agent Greville Hallam and 29-year-old solicitor Angus Cochrane. He was released in 2004.

It’s an emotionally confusing moment as you feel sympathy for James’ evident pain in recalling his crimes, yet you know that he caused great pain to others through them.

Many years after his sentencing for life in 1984, James won a prize for prose writing aimed at prison inmates, and was later approached by the Guardian to write a regular column from prison, ‘A Life Inside’, an unprecedented move in British journalism.

But James is not really just attacking the prison system; it is more a deep-rooted criticism of society: a society in which he was given a criminal identity aged ten, experienced a severe lack of love in the care system, and never
felt valued or believed in by anyone.

The same criticism carries across to the prison system; that people are likely to fulfil the identity and role you give them, so prisoners who are brutalised and given no responsibility or purpose are going to become unable to cope
well with the outside world.

Thus, he argues that prison culture is hugely detrimental; he talks of the “psychological warfare” of prison, with “so many damaged people living in such close proximity to each other.” “The common currency is fear” and prisoners “don’t want to show they’re human.” 

One story is particularly disarming. One prisoner would smoke joints and get his pet cockatiel, ‘Priscilla’, stoned off them. When James adds “I saw him carried out in a body bag the next day”, our initial laughter is cut short. 

However, you don’t even need to believe that we should make prison better for the sake of prisoners, for it is in society’s best interests too. “If you don’t take an interest in how our prison system is run, the same cycle will continue.”

James describes reoffending rates as a “national scandal”, and it’s hard to disagree with him: in 2011 a shocking 90% of those sentenced in England and Wales were reoffenders.

What are his ideas to change this? He emphasises the importance of education, of staff who respect prisoners and help them value themselves, of responsibility, and, in general, of making prison a place with some meaning, rather than just a place in which to temporarily remove people from society and take away their liberty, only to throw them back into it unprepared and damaged.

Erwin James doesn’t have a coherent blueprint for penal reform in this country, nor has he squared the fundamental philosophical and ethical debates
of criminal responsibility, free will and justice. His real idea is that we need to find the possibility for humanity within the prison system, for the sake of everyone.