Holloway prison

“Most of the people in this prison have been hurt and damaged at some point in their formative years,” a psychiatrist told Erwin James. “The rest of us have to pay for it.”

James was in Wakefield Prison on a life sentence, convicted of two murders. “Hurt and damaged” was right. James’s mother was killed in a car crash when he was seven; his father, a violent drunk, dragged him from town to town in the years that followed, offering no stability.

As a teenager James slid into crime: shoplifting, breaking into gas meters and cigarette machines, hot-wiring cars. He got warnings, probation, community service, finally reformatories and prison. At 16, he followed his father into the bottle. As he writes in his memoir Redeemable, he was “surprised at how speedily . . . it made me feel secure, effortlessly lifting the weight of being me off my shoulders”.

His criminal activity grew more ambitious, usually carried out when drunk, often with violence. He lived briefly with several women, fathering two children with different mothers. The two murders in 1982 — the first victim strangled in James’s arm lock, the other battered to death with a brick — are described via a cutting from the Daily Telegraph: even now, it seems, James cannot bear to do it. He had evaded arrest by enlisting in the French Foreign Legion: “I felt that I had found somewhere I belonged.” Learning — from his father — that the British police knew where he was, he returned to Britain and turned himself in.

Life for James would mean 20 years. Safe from physical assault by his murderous reputation and legionnaire’s hardening, he discovered and assaulted his conscience, reliving a shameful life of making others pay for his damage. Prisons were for punishment, not reform — especially the high-security Long Lartin in Worcestershire, with low-ceilinged coffin-like cells six-and-a-half feet by seven, the claustrophobia “almost tangible”.

The Wakefield psychiatrist, named Joan, was his lifeline: she made him feel his responsibility, cleared some path for him to realise an intelligence he assumed he did not possess, persuaded him into education. He took two degrees and then — a miracle — came the offer of a column in the Guardian, shepherded by the then deputy editor Ian Katz. It proved a success. Imprisoned as a dangerous thug, James came out a highly educated, urgent reformer. Prison works? It can, occasionally.

There’s little programme for prison reform in James book: too little, in fact. It is an ancient mariner’s tale, needing to be told, with the ring of authenticity earned by suffering on every page. He was, however, redeemable (he never says he was “redeemed”); and, if he was, many others should be too.

Programmes of redemption are the subject of Baz Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations, an account of journeys taken by the author, a New York academic who runs a prison-to-college programme, to a set of countries to inspect their prison systems. Her commitment is admirable. The US prison system — with 2.3m prisoners, or 25 per cent of the world’s total, overcrowding, gang warfare, huge numbers of assaults and rapes, and a heavy reliance on solitary confinement — needs reform desperately.

Thus Dreisinger’s book should be absorbing. It is at times, when she allows herself to report, as from a South African visiting room that “erupts with narratives of pain . . . My mother was high on drugs and alcohol when I was a baby. I was shot seven times. I saw gangsters kill my father. My father died of Aids.” In a reflection on her journeys — to Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa, Singapore, Australia, Norway, Thailand, Brazil and Jamaica — she writes, sensibly, that “we cannot use the penal system as an alternative to social welfare”, but then goes on to say countries must “address the conditions that lead to crime, to prevent the need for prisons altogether” — a perspective so distant, so unmapped, as to be empty.

Elsewhere she suggests that “capitalism” lies behind the horrors she describes, endorsing the views of activist Angela Davis, who says that a radical transformation of the social order could allow prison abolition — not the experience of countries ruled by Communist parties, the US version of which Davis was a member of for much of her life. Similarly, it feels too simplistic for Dreisinger to blame European colonialism, brutal and systemically racist but a long time gone, for the present prison policies of African states.

You can forgive much of one with the courage to spend tracts of her life in doleful prisons, seeking to assist damaged people. But where James’s story was one of self-discovery, Dreisinger’s is inevit­ably that of an outsider’s interventions. Ultimately, it is the “inside” that we want to know about — about what works and what does not, and how the system might show that it, too, is redeemable.

Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope, by Erwin James, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99, 352 pages

Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World, by Baz Dreisinger, Other Press, RRP$27.95, 336 pages

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

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