Book Review: A Life Inside by Erwin James

Despite what the tabloids try and make out, you’d have to be a damn fool to think life in prison is a cushy, easy way to spend a few years. Yes, they’ve changed from the bread and water days of cold cells and violent guards but I’ve never understood why people think this is a bad thing. That’s progress and the whole point of prison should be rehabilitation, taking damaged, criminal people and helping them work out how to live less harmful lives.

A TV in the cell or a softish mattress isn’t going to make not being able to come and you go as you please any easier. It won’t make up for the fact you won’t be with loved ones for key life moments, or that you spend every day surrounded by strangers who may be violent and hostile.

This is what Erwin James talks about in his book, the day to day life on the inside. The little struggles, the routine and effect it has on people, James wrote columns for The Guardian and these are some of his entries from the early ’00s.

James captures the characters in the cells, telling their stories with open compassion, he details the social rules of prison life and the interactions between the prisoners and the system.


James’ writing is simple but engaging, with humour and humanity throughout. The entries are brief but he explores his themes with insight, and there is very little self pity. When he details the hardships of prison it is done more to educate the reader rather than to court sympathy.

Due to his life sentence James has seen things change in prison and it’s clear that many are for the best, and it’s hard not to be happy when he gets a transfer to open prison, which while more relaxed poses it’s own challenges.

He is a clever observer of behaviour and the book gives a great insight into what is at times a very difficult life. He offers a fair, kind view of life behind bars and allows the reader a real insight into a world most of us will hopefully never experience.

Verdict: Smart, honest and clever James is a skilled writer and engages the reader with his easy, insightful prose. He’s a likeable guide to prison life and it’s a great look into the life of prisoners. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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