Some men find religion in prison. Brian Aitken found liberty.
Convicted last year in New Jersey of illegally transporting firearms, Aitken spent four months in state prisons before Republican Gov. Chris Christie commuted his seven-year sentence to “time served” and let him go free. Now that he’s out, Aitken, once an aspiring entrepreneur, is a professional libertarian activist.
In January 2009, the 25-year-old found himself in handcuffs when Burlington County police discovered three unloaded handguns safely locked in a secure case in the trunk of his Honda Civic while he was moving his belongings to a new apartment in Hoboken. Aitken, who had no criminal background, purchased the guns from a licensed dealer in Colorado where he had lived for the past few years. Aitken was moving back to New Jersey to be closer to his parents and his son, who lived with his ex-wife. He spent months in 2008 transporting his belongings from Colorado to his parents’ house in Burlington County while he looked for a new job and a place to live.
During the moving process, the pressure got the best of him after months of arguing with his ex-wife over their child. His mother, a social worker named Sue Aitken, found him so upset one day that she phoned the police to protect him from himself. Before the dispatcher answered the line, however, she changed her mind and hung up. The local police traced the call and drove to the Aitkens’ home to check up. Brian had already left to drop off his things (which included the three guns), but they called him and told him to come back home to talk.
He turned his car around and pulled up to his parents’ house. The police questioned him and without receiving consent, searched his car, where they found the guns. Police arrested Aitken for illegally transporting the firearms within New Jersey, a state with some of the strictest gun laws in the country.
James Morley, the county judge who heard the case, refused to consider Aitken’s argument that he was transporting the guns to his new residence, which would have been enough to find him innocent. After a jury convicted him, Judge Morely sentenced him to seven years on August 27, 2010.
A convicted felon, he spent two weeks in the county jail, another week in the state’s Central Reception and Assignment Facility (CRAF), and then was finally transferred to a prison built especially for sex offenders where he spent another three months.
It was CRAF though, that Aitken says was the worst. The place is more than one hundred years old, smells horrible, and is home to some of the toughest criminals in the state.
“When you think Shawshank, you think this place,” Aitken recalls. “I was threatened and pushed around and people would steal the very little amount of belongings that I had. Gangs want to make it known who’s in charge and who the bosses are, and when you get something that means they get something too.”