Erwin James Monahan was born to itinerant Scottish parents in Somerset in 1957. A family lifestyle described as, “brutal and rootless” by a prison psychologist following the death of his mother when James was seven, led to a limited formal education.  Aged ten he was sleeping rough when he gained his first criminal conviction, for the burglary of a sweet shop, which resulted in him being taken into care. He left the care home at 15 and spent the rest of his teenage and early adult years drifting, living with extended family members, and again often sleeping rough. During that time he worked in various labouring jobs, but also committed relatively petty, mostly acquisitive, but occasionally violent crimes (criminal damage, common assault.) His directionless way of life, which included a period as a fugitive in the French Foreign Legion continued, until August 1984 when he began his life sentence for murder. Ian Katz, deputy editor of the The Guardian, explains the paper's position on its relationship with Erwin James here.

James went to prison an inarticulate and ill-educated individual with, in his own words, “massive failings to overcome.” With few apparent skills or abilities his prison beginnings were unpromising. After some encouragement from a prison worker however he embarked on a programme of part-time education. Six years later he graduated with the Open University, gaining an arts degree majoring in History. Around the same time he developed an interest in writing. His first article for a national newspaper, The Independent, appeared in 1994. In 1995 he won first prize in the annual Koestler Awards for prose. His first article in The Guardian newspaper appeared in 1998 and he began writing a regular column for the paper entitled A Life Inside in 2000. The columns were the first of their kind in the history of British journalism and to this day James remains a Guardian columnist and contributor. (A collection of his columns, A Life Inside, A Prisoner’s Notebook, was published in 2003. A follow up, The Home Stretch, From Prison to Parole, was published in 2005.) A year after his release from prison in 2004 James became a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and from September 2009 until September 2011 he was a trustee of the Alternatives to Violence Project Britain.

He is a patron of the charity CREATE, an organisation that promotes the arts and creative activities among marginalised groups; a patron of Blue Sky, the award winning social enterprise company that trains and employs ex-offenders; and a patron of The Reader Organisation, a national charity that, "aims to bring about a Reading Revolution." He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (FRSA) and an Honorary Master of the Open University. Erwin James now works full-time as a freelance writer.