Accepting redemption is difficult

22 Mar 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 22 Mar 2017

Are prisons just about punishment, or should we expect more?
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In the week Martin McGuinness passed away, Scope examines the nature of redemption by looking at another man's story - double murderer Erwin James, who spoke in Belfast on Monday - and asks what society wants from its prisons.

This week the news in Northern Ireland is filled with questions about redemption.

The passing of Martin McGuinness – former Provisional IRA commander and, until very recently, our deputy First Minister – has put such issues front and centre.

Long-time political opponents and partners – roles sometimes held by the same people, at the same time – from the DUP and other organisations have been lining up to praise or, at the very least be equivocal, about Mr McGuinness, with messages such as “It is less important how you start your life than how you finish it.”

Many others have not been so kind, offering unfettered condemnation; on the other hand, there are also plenty of people who would say McGuinness’ tale is not a question of redemption, and instead he was a man who shifted strategies due to circumstances

This article does not want to argue about or analyse opposing interpretations of our history. This is, very much, about redemption – its nature, how we value it as a society, and just how willing we all are to look it in the face.

Because redemption is a virtue with a sting in the tail; in order to redeem yourself you must first fail.


On Monday evening, as part of the Imagine! Festival, Ulster University hosted Erwin James.

Mr James is a double murderer who served 20 years in prison, during which time he, by his own account, became a different person.

His path is very different from the long-time deputy First Minister in that he is openly ashamed of both his former self and his former actions. There is no intersection with politics – but then redemption is not political, it is more fundamental, social and human.

Now Mr James is a journalist and a writer (by the time of his release he was already a columnist for the Guardian) who uses his own experience to discuss, amongst other things, prison reform and what exactly prisons are for and should aim to be.

During his time inside and thanks to the intervention and help of several other people – most importantly psychologist Joan Branton – he educated himself and ultimately became a different man.

His description of this experience, however, is not really some great triumph of human will. He talks about how the stains of blood will never leave him and his prison anecdotes create a picture of guilt and remorse and despair – not just for him, but for the vast majority of inmates – from which it is difficult to recover.

Prisons in the UK are, in his view, lacking in practical purpose. The assistance he received for his own turnaround relied on the brilliance of individual people within a system that is not designed for constructive ends – and he points to the fact that 70% of people who are released from prison will soon reoffend, and that often these newer crimes are more severe than those committed prior; “Prison makes you become a survivalist.”

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The UK has a significantly higher percentage of its population behind bars than other similar countries, like Germany and France (but vastly lower than the United States). Reoffending rates are high.

Other countries perform much better – in Sweden, for example, prisons are treated as rehabilitative enterprises and rates of reoffending are vastly lower.

In Sweden public officials are happy to talk up the efforts they make to improve the prospects of those who find themselves incarcerated. It is hard to imagine that being replicated in the UK, where there is a love of painting our own jails as soft on criminals and little different from hotels.

Mr James says, “You hope someone out there will be aware of the truth of prison life. Our media says they are great places, holiday camps, prisons in their view are wonderful place to stay on the taxpayers’ expense. That’s not true.

“I deserved to be in prison, I deserved everything that was coming to me, and most people who are in prison deserve to be there, especially if you have caused serious harm. But my view is that, whilst you are in there, there has to be some purpose in case you eventually get out. It is important that people come out better than when they went in.

“I had no sense of rehabilitation or reform in prison. At that time I was ill-educated, inarticulate, I had no skills or abilities or any sense that anything good could come from those circumstances.

“Often you think people in prison are having a great time at your expense but you would be amazed how much remorse and regret and self-loathing that there is inside.”

He talks about how he met all sorts of prisoners, a number of “inadequate people who had done terrible things” – indeed, the first words in his book Redeemed – a Memoir of Darkness and Hope are:

All my life I had been a liar, a thief and a cheat.

“I still stand by those lines because I had been. I’d been somebody who didn’t have moral values, who didn’t have a sense of purpose.”

Regrets providing direction

One of the key personal reconciliations that Mr James made, and which was crucial to him ultimately committing to the education and personal development that has shaped his life as it is today, was deciding that getting the best out of himself was more respectful to the people he killed than wallowing in guilt and self-disgust.

This provided him with the impetus to squeeze the most out of the rest of his life – but is not the same thing as leaving your guilt behind. Indeed, quite the opposite.

He repeatedly stated that “my slate will never be clean” and that there is no possible way to compensate for the things he has done.

“The funny thing is, in prison you have to say sorry to everyone – sorry to the psychologist, sorry to the parole officer, sorry to the prison governor. But you don’t have to say sorry to the victims.

“But, in my case, how do you do that? I’m convicted of terrible crimes. Two people are dead. Sorry isn’t enough, sorry is pathetic.

“However, I did get a chance to speak with people connected with my victims. I’m a semi-public figure and they contacted me. One was really angry. ‘I’ve been reading your column for years and admired you as a writer and now I’ve discovered you killed my friend.’

“The other said ‘I’m a Guardian reader and I know now who you are.’ Then he said my victim would be so proud of me.”

What are prisons for?

Revolutionary thinking around prisons is not easy. Many people see them as vehicles for punishment and find the idea that more resources be spent on people who have committed crimes abhorrent.

Sympathy for those who have done horrible things will never be in abundant supply. Some will see it as progressive wisdom and others as folly, reward for the undeserving. Both points of view are understandable.

But redemption also has practical qualities – and here the tales of Mr James and Mr McGuinness come together again: the past cannot be changed but the future is yet to be determined.

When Mr James posits that “Surely we want people to come out of prisons better than they went in?” he makes an argument that is hard to dismiss. Plenty of people will still find it hard to swallow – but his argument is logical, and it is not just about benefitting offenders.

“It’s not about sympathy, or compassion. It is a challenge for any community or society to help people who have hurt us. Our natural instinct when people have hurt us is to hurt them, hurt them ten times.”

Then again, if prisons are to be part of a criminal justice system that respects society and victims then surely their aim must be to reduce reoffending, whether the person being released is a pickpocket or a killer. The fewer crimes there are, the fewer victims there are.

In order for this to happen we, as a society, need to accept a greater proportion of resources be directed to constructive measures in prisons.

That means money spent on people who have done undesirable, and sometimes horrendous, things.

Redemption is not easy – not for the person redeemed, and maybe not for the rest of us either.

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