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Tuesday, June 8, 1999 Published at 18:42 GMT 19:42 UK


Aitken's lot - life in an open prison

Jonathan Aitken on the morning of his sentencing

From Eton and Oxford to incarceration at Her Majesty's pleasure, former Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken may have cause to be thankful for his expensive education.

Fellow "celebrity" convict Lord Brocket, who was sent down for insurance fraud, has warned the one-time millionaire and privy councillor that prison is, "in some way, little different from public school".

Exactly where Aitken is destined in the prison system is, as yet, uncertain. But after a short spell in Belmarsh, a secure, closed jail near Woolwich, south London, he will likely progress to an open prison, probably Ford in West Sussex.

Prison to the 'stars'

Ford has become a usual home for high-profile criminals serving time. As well as Lord Brocket, it has played host to Earl Spencer's one-time best friend Darius Guppy and George Best.

[ image:  ]
Ford is one of 13 open prisons in England and Wales, which have a capacity to house 4,000 inmates.

Before they reach open prison, convicts must undergo a risk assessment to test their suitability. Particular considerations are an inmate's risk to the wider public and whether they are likely to escape.

An open prison is based entirely on trust. Unlike a closed jail, they have no security fences, no locks on doors. In effect, a prisoner can walk out whenever he likes.

But any such breach of trust would be punished with being "shipped out" to a more austere regime.

The contrast between the two is like "heaven and hell", says James, a former inmate at Ford.

"It was a huge relief after being in Brixton where I was for 16 weeks," said James, who wished to remain anonymous.

[ image: Lord Brocket: Was
Lord Brocket: Was "knifed up" while serving time
"It means you start to have choices again. It is all relative, but compared to a closed institution where I was for 22 hours a day, all of a sudden I could walk down to the bathroom when I wanted to."

While "on reception" in a closed institution, Aitken will find communication with the outside world is at a premium.

"The telephone is the most important thing - it becomes a lifeline. Initially he will get maybe three minutes on the phone each day, but in Ford it gets better," said James.

The reliance on the telephone means phone cards have become a common currency in prisons.

But in the closed regime, Aitken will have to rely on his cellmate for the majority of day-to-day communication. Writing in a the Mail on Sunday, Lord Brocket recalled his first cellmate was "in for attempted murder".

"His knife-damaged torso was like an A-Z of London, and we got on famously," he wrote.

Good to talk

Lord Brocket urged Aitken to talk to his fellow prisoners, regardless of their vastly differing backgrounds.

[ image: Where Aitken is probably destined]
Where Aitken is probably destined
James, who served nine months at Ford for immigration fraud, agreed with the advice, seeing it as a means of breaking down the barriers.

"The biggest problem is likely to be his attitude. Prison is a great leveller. Whether you are an ex-Cabinet minister or a dealer from the back streets of Liverpool, it's all the same.

"He is going to have to queue up like the rest of them for his food, he's going to have just 15 minutes to eat it, he's going to have to wait his turn.

"It will be a humbling experience and he must not see it as beneath him."

His celebrity status should not be much of a problem at Ford, said James, but he needs to realise "his privileged past means he has less of an excuse than most".

'Humanising' effect

Violence is an inevitability inside, and Lord Brocket says he was "knifed up" by "plastic gangsters" - young inmates with something to prove - after refusing to pay protection money.

Again life should be easier in Ford, which James commended as a "half-way house" with a "humanising" effect. He will be allowed to work and pursue a learning course.

But the former multi-millionaire, who has since declared himself bankrupt, will see a drastic cut in the pay packet he was used to.

He can expect to earn £7 to £10 per week for working in the on-site farm and gardens, or helping with cleaning or in the kitchen. What personal savings he does have, he will only be allowed to spend at £15 per week.

Place for choices

At the end of the working day, which runs from 8am to 5pm, inmates can play football, watch television or read. They can also take a course in computer studies, carpentry or painting and decorating.

To many it will not sound like a prison at all, yet James defends the regime as somewhere that teaches prisoners there are choices to be made in life - both in prison and outside.

He might even appreciate the experience, as Lord Brocket confessed he did.

He wrote: "Curiously, I emerged a better person. Material things matter little and it is friends and family who really count."

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