Ex-minister Jonathan Aitken: ‘End long waits for justice’

Defendants are stuck behind bars at Pentonville, says politician-turned-chaplain who served time for perjury

Friday, 22nd January 2021 — By Calum Fraser

Jonathan Aitken

Former MP Jonathan Aitken, who was jailed for perjury in 1999, is now a prison chaplain at Pentonville

A FORMER scandal-hit cabinet minister who is now a part-time prison chaplain at Pentonville has warned that many defendants are being denied justice as they face up to two years in custody awaiting trial.

Jonathan Aitken, who served in John Major’s Conservative government before being jailed for perjury, said much of his time in the Caledonian Road jail is spent consoling distraught inmates who are there on remand.

Defendants should face a maximum of 182 days on remand but special exemptions have been brought in due to the chaos caused by the Covid pandemic which has seen trials delayed.

Mr Aitken, who served seven months in three different prisons before becoming a Church of England chaplain at Pentonville, told the Tribune: “The old saying ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is coming home to roost in a painful way, with so many prisoners waiting longer and longer for a trial.

“My life as a chaplain is often spent simply trying to console people over this.”

It is understood that more than 70 members of staff at Pentonville are currently off sick or isolating

He added: “This time last year people were waiting three months or so – now it’s well over a year, or 18 months or over two years.

“It is a big emotional and physical problem for Pentonville and all prisons.”

A significant propor­tion of Pentonville’s prisoner population of roughly 1,000 are being held on remand, mean­ing they have not yet faced trial but have been charged with a crime.

Before Covid struck, the criminal justice system was already creaking under the weight of a vast backlog of cases. The figure has continued to rise in the past 12 months, with around 54,000 now awaiting a hearing.

Lawyers have warned that this has been devastating for victims of crime who have to wait years for justice but also potentially for innocent defendants languishing in jail without having their day in court.

Covid-19 outbreaks in prisons across the country – including Pentonville – have meant inmates are often confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

Mr Aitken said: “Some prisoners’ moods are resigned while others are tense and knotted up inside and sometimes really angry.

“I was a prisoner before I became a chaplain so I understand very well the value of exercise and what is called ‘association’ – when prisoners are allowed to mingle. A lot of these things have stopped or almost stopped. There is still some exercise.”

It is understood that more than 70 members of staff at Pentonville are currently off sick or isolating, with a third of these having tested positive for Covid-19. Two officers are seriously ill in hospital.

Around 50 inmates have also tested positive for the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, four criminal justice watchdogs for England and Wales this week said they have “grave concerns” about the court and prison system.

The Tribune has repeatedly been told by lawyers that resources for the criminal justice system have been cut to the bone over the past decade and that there is little political will to fix it.

Mr Aitken said: “I see the prison service as the Cinderella of the front-line public services. Cinderella, in the fairy story, was the rather neglected member of the household, she was kept out of sight and people didn’t treat her with the same respect as her elder sisters.

“I’m not sure prisons are full of Prince Charmings but they are too often ignored.

“Still, I am constantly surprised by how good the quality of prison officers is and the work that is done in prisons.”

In the wake of Met Commissioner Cressida Dick’s calls for police to be bumped up the list for the Covid-19 vaccine, Mr Aitken has added that prison staff should join them.

He was found guilty of perjury and perverting the course of justice in 1999 after he sued the Guardian newspaper for libel. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Precautionary measures have been put in place at Pentonville to protect lives and we continue to closely monitor the situation.

“We are also taking unprecedented action to keep the justice system moving by using video technology, establishing 36 Nightingale courtrooms and prioritising urgent cases to protect the public from dangerous criminals.”

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