From Government, to prison, to God

Former Conservative Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken, who spent six months in Belmarsh Prison in 1999 for perjury, gave a talk at St Paul’s Church, Grove Park on Thursday 16 May. He was introduced by Torin Douglas, (pictured above with him) who had reported on his court case for the BBC all those years ago. Aitken spoke about his time in prison and how it led to him becoming an ordained prison chaplain. During a Q&A with the audience he blamed low morale in prisons on budget cuts that saw officer numbers “cut by a third” but also praised new recruits to the prison service who he said had a fresh approach to rehabilitating inmates.

From Treasury Secretary to Prison Chaplain

Aitken, born in 1942, was elected MP for Thanet East in 1974 and while an MP spent two years on the board of arms manufacturer BMARC from 1988 to 1990. He became Minister of Defence Procurement under John Major. The Guardian newspaper and Granada TV’s World In Action programme both ran stories about his dealings with Saudi businessmen while he was a minister.

In 1993 Jonathan Aitken stayed at the Ritz hotel in Paris. His £1000 bill was paid by Saudi Prince, Mohammed bin Fahd – a breach of ministerial rules. In 1995, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Aitken resigned after the Guardian revealed the Saudi payment. Aitken claimed the visit to Paris was personal, not business related, and that his wife had paid the bill. He sued the Guardian and World in Action but lost because evidence presented in court revealed that his wife had not paid and had been in Switzerland at the time. Aitken was charged with perjury, sentenced to an 18 month prison sentence and served six months in Belmarsh Prison in 1999.

At St Paul’s Church, Jonathan Aitken, now Reverend Aitken, recounted his experiences, revealing his shock at the young age of the prison population, their lack of literacy, and the widespread abuse of drugs by prisoners. He joined a prayer group which included inmates with convictions of pick pocketing, armed robbery, and murder. He helped inmates to read and write letters and as a ‘thank you’ was offered hardcore porn. Aitken told the audience at St Paul’s that he found himself telling his fellow inmate who had offered the porn of his faith journey, to justify not accepting it. Aitken went on to study Theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He was ordained as a deacon last year, and is now a prison chaplain at Pentonville prison.

59 prison officers for 1300 prisoners

During a Q&A with the audience, Aitken cited government cuts to prison budgets as the reason behind low morale in prisons, noting that at HMP Pentonville the ratio of officers to prisoners has been as low as 59 to 1300. A government recruitment drive has now boosted that number to 120 officers, but more than half the prison officers at Pentonville are in their first year on the job.

Aitken praised the attitude of the recent recruits, describing them as “younger, more compassionate and more 21st Century”. He introduced James, a young Prison Officer who is nine months into his tenure. He studied Economics and Management at university, and came into his job through a government-sponsored graduate recruitment programme. He explained his approach to the role, citing an encounter with an inmate who was rude to him. Instead of reprimanding the inmate ‘by the book’, he checked back in on him the following day. The prisoner apologised for the way he’d treated the officer. “Had I challenged him, that interaction would not have happened”, said the officer, who believes reprimanding him would have removed any chance of building a relationship that could allow for longer term rehabilitation.

No magic bullet for prison reform

When asked for a single most important step in reforming prisons, Aitken responded that there was no one magic bullet. He instead suggested a range of small gestures combined could make a big difference. Jonathan Aitken is Honorary President of Tempus Novo, a charity that works with former prisoners to ensure stable employment and access to mental health support once they leave prison. St Paul’s Church held a collection for the charity during the talk.

Both Aitken and James highlighted a lack of support for ex-prisoners as a key challenge to reforming inmates. They noted that prisoners used to close access to doctors and mental health professionals were left with little support on the outside. The prison officer explained how ex-offenders would return the same old friends’ houses for shelter, with links to the same criminal gangs that had led to their prison sentences, which often resulted in them returning to prison, no more than two years after being released.

Changing attitudes

Rev. Aitken suggested that changing attitudes were a positive first step in prison reform. As well as the new generational approach to dealing with inmates, he said he’d noted changes in attitudes to allowing ex-offenders to contribute positively to society – working to support young people caught up in gangs, or teaching current inmates to read and write.

It happens that the talk took place in Mental Health Awareness Week, which was also the week in which the decision was announced that the Probation Service would be re-nationalized. Jonathan Aitken and James’ comments led to interesting and timely discussion.