Friday 6 December 2019

All men become equal in the fraternity of the fallen

As Andy Coulson begins life in prison, former convict Jonathan Aitken offers some timely words of advice and comfort

Jonathan Aitken

I have been where you now are. So I feel for you, sympathetically and fraternally, as you start out on the first weekend of your prison journey.

It is an experience you will surely have been dreading, but I will bet heavily that you will come through it well, particularly if you encounter some of the encouragements that helped me to survive.

I, too, started my time at HMP Belmarsh in Woolwich, south London - where you are currently being assessed - and my sentence was also 18 months. It will, I am sure, seem a symbolic sentence. In the world of cons, however, it will be regarded as "easy gravy". You'll serve a maximum of nine months (because all sentences are halved at this level), but I suspect you will be released at least 60 days early on a tag, and may well get another 30 days for the time you have already been questioned or detained. All in all, you will be out in 180 to 200 days.

Planet Prison is a mighty strange place, with its own culture, language and customs. But it is full of surprises, a lot of them pleasant. First, to the credit of the often-underrated prison staff, English jails are decently and fairly run. You would be extraordinarily unlucky if anything truly unpleasant happened to you. One or two rough verbals maybe, but nothing worse. So you should have little to fear.

I have made this same prediction to at least 40 men on their way in to prison during the past two years, including four parliamentarians. Few of them believed me at the time, but all of them have since acknowledged that the forecast was right.

Behind the walls, high-profile prisoners are objects of curiosity but not hostility. This can change if you break some common-sense rules, such as: don't give yourself airs and graces; don't behave like a tall poppy; do understand that all men are equal in a prison uniform, and do humbly insert yourself into the ebb and flow of the fraternity of the fallen.

One of the paradoxes of life on a prison wing is that it is full of people who have made bad mistakes, yet not many of them are really bad people. As a result, the zeitgeist of the community, although tinged with sad regrets, tends to be vibrant, humorous, welcoming and, above all, human.

You may well find yourself receiving more warmth and more milk of human kindness in the next few weeks than has come your way in recent months. Another paradox is that prisoners and prison officers are often remarkably good judges of character. The real bastards, fantasists, no hopers, fakers and fraggles (a cruel word for mentally-disturbed inmates who should be in mental health institutions, not jails) are sussed out quickly.

My expectations about what the inmates of Belmarsh will make of you are based on the opinions I have heard about you since your conviction. Privately, I sense a tide of sympathy welling up for you. I do not believe I am alone in taking the view that some police officers and prosecutors have made worse - although non-criminal - errors of judgment than yours in this saga.

Your present pariah status will surely fade, perhaps faster than you think if the prosecution go on demanding additional pounds of your flesh. Certainly the prison community, in stark contrast to the legal community, will be saying that the continual hounding of you "ain't proper''.

As for doing good while you are inside, I hope you won't mind me revealing that in our telephone conversation a few hours before your sentencing, you told me that you were "determined to make the best of prison". Then we discussed your options for being of service to your fellow inmates. You were immediately interested in becoming a "listener" (prison Samaritans), or working for the Shannon Trust's Toe by Toe programme, which enables young illiterate offenders to be taught reading and writing skills by other prisoners (just the job for an ex-editor!).

Or, indeed, doing inmate-to-inmate mentoring of the type that has been so successfully pioneered by St Giles Trust. Your enthusiasm for involving yourself in such charitable causes speaks volumes for the positive way you are facing your sentence with humility and realism. If this letter - and my 
earlier, private letter to you - sounds a little over-optimistic, let me row back slightly.

I know that the going for you has been tough and could be rougher still. I know I was having a bad time when I was ground through the mills of defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and jail. Your ordeals seem even worse because they are so protracted. But all nightmares end.

So, let me finish with some short and long-term suggestions about coming through the fire. The short-term struggle to be a positive prisoner is largely with you. On good days, you will find satisfaction in doing the sort of good works mentioned earlier. There are other options, such as using the resources of the prison education department to master a language or new subject. If you are interested in a spiritual journey, prison can be a good place to start or deepen one.

But there will be bad days, too. Coping with them will be difficult. One important mindset is to strive, to flush all anger, resentment and rage on past issues down the loo of life. Not easy, I know, especially when there are battles to be fought. But somehow I eventually managed to become a bitterness-free zone myself, and I commend this goal. Only when you have achieved this will you be truly ready to move onwards and upwards again.

Looking still further ahead, please keep at the forefront of your mind that there is a good and new life to be had after prison. It will be a different life, as mine has been. But count your blessings. You are young, talented, respected and tenacious. You will, I know, get through it without a complaint; without whingeing.

Even though I found coming out of jail harder than going in, I have been happier and more fulfilled in my post-prison years than I was on the fast track of public life. May it be the same for you.

So be of good courage and you, too, will travel well inside and beyond prison. Good luck!

© Telegraph

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