Tag Archive: UK

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. (more…)