Books kept me alive in prison

The end of the ban on sending books to prisoners in the UK reminds me just how vital they were to my survival inside, and to the life I have lived since

From The Guardian/ By Erwin James

The official lifting on the ban on sending books to prisoners, which comes into effect on Tuesday, finally brings to an end one of the most irrational and baffling Ministry of Justice policy decisions in recent times. When I consider my life before prison and my life after prison, the difference is so immense it’s almost immeasurable. In my heart, I know that I could not have made the changes I needed to make, to live a contributing life, without education and books.

In 2008 I wrote a piece about The Grass Arena, the life story of former vagrant John Healy who found redemption through chess. “A good book can change the way you think about life,” was how I started the piece. Healy’s book had been sent to me by a probation officer in 1990 when I was around six years into my life sentence and struggling. “Read what this man has achieved and be inspired,” she wrote in the inside cover. I did and I was. Never could I have imagined then that 18 years later I would be instrumental in getting The Grass Arena republished
as a Penguin Modern Classic
. This book is still a source of inspiration and hope today.

How any of us become who we are is a complicated process. I was already trying to figure it out long before I read about John Healy. It was the first year of my life sentence and I was locked in my cell in Wandsworth prison for 23 hours a day. I was without skills or abilities, but I could read. I’m sure the six books a week I was allowed from the prison library helped to keep me alive during that uncertain year, unlike the man in the cell above mine who hanged himself during my first Christmas inside.

At first I read so I wouldn’t have to think – then a friend sent me a book called Prisoners of Honour, a gripping account of the Dreyfus Affair by David Levering Lewis. This was the book that would really make me think and change the way I
thought about life.

For as long as I could remember, before prison, I lived without courage or integrity. In Dreyfus, I found a man who possessed profound measures of both. A good, honest and loyal soldier of France, Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment in a tiny purpose-built prison on Devil’s Island, 10km off the coast of French Guyana, after being wrongly convicted of spying. For five years he suffered the most deprived and brutal conditions imaginable for a prisoner. Reading what he endured before he was exonerated made my bleak Wandsworth cell, with its table, chair, bed and toilet bucket, seem like luxury.

More importantly, Dreyfus’s unconquerable character made me want to be a better man. His story inspired a wild fantasy – that if I lived long enough and ever tasted freedom I would find his prison and grasp his window bars as he had done so many times while he gazed out towards his still beloved France. That fantasy became a reality two years after I was freed in 2006.
Later I wrote to Lewis to tell him what his book had done for me. He wrote back: “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 for ever.”

When I was asked last year to choose a book of the month by the charity Give a Book, I chose Prisoners of Honour and donated my copy of the book that I’d had with me for 29 years to the first Book Room in Wormwood Scrubs prison. I hoped it might inspire others as it had inspired me.

Though these books are the standout titles I read whilst in prison, there were others, among them Soledad Brother, the letters of George Jackson; Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan and In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott. All of these I would recommend to anyone who finds themselves for whatever reason in a prison cell. I look back on the 20 years I spent behind bars as long-term exercise in survival, but I’ll always be grateful to those people who work in our prisons who helped me to become who I should have been. Without them, and without books, I would never have made it.