This year, Penned Up came to Lewes Prison. It’s a festival that takes place behind closed doors: its audience as well as its performers are prisoners. But outside is an event that’s aimed at a wider audience. The Keep at Falmer is hosting ‘Inside Lewes Prison’ – two talks about life behind bars: a historical insight from County Archivist Christopher Whittick; and a personal perspective from author and journalist Erwin James.
Back in 1984, Erwin was neither of those things. He’d just been convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. It would be 20 years before his release. During that time, education and reading transformed his perspective. He took O-level English, then an Open University degree and a journalism course. But Erwin insists he isn’t an exception, apart from his subsequent career choice. “The vast majority of people in prison hate being criminals” is what he found when talking to other offenders. “Few rejoice in being outcasts. Most are broken, damaged and, like any regular citizen, have dreams of living a regular life, with a job, a home, a family. There is never any excuse for crime, for causing hurt and pain to others, but if we don't use our prisons constructively the hurt and pain will continue.”
Earlier this year the Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke MP, said prison had three main purposes: protecting the public, punishment and rehabilitation. What does Erwin think? “Pretty much the same – but, since the majority of people in prison will be released one day and will be somebody's neighbour, we have to agree more as a society that rehabilitation is key.”
Art can be a key part of this rehabilitation, according to Erwin. “My experience was that creativity – more than anything else – gives people who engage a sense of value and worth like nothing else can. I'm so grateful for the authors, musicians and poets who came to the prisons I was in over the years; they gave me hope that I might find the better part of me and, along with help from the teachers and good-hearted prison staff, I made it.”
“I want people, the public, to be safer from people like I was. Helping people in prison is not about compassion for broken damaged lives; it’s about practicalities, to make communities safer.”
Inside Lewes Prison takes place 6pm – 8pm on Wednesday 7th November 2018 at The Keep. Tickets £5; booking essential via 01273 482349.
First published in Viva Lewes magazine issue 146 November 2018