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.”
The jail is notoriously full of gangs, mostly “Bloods and some Crips,” Aitken says. Anyone who wants into the gang had to prove himself. It was there that the young, aspiring businessman underwent a slew of constant threats from inmates and had to fight to keep his belongings.
Aitken remained a solitary figure in jail, and was warned to remain quiet about his background and family. He heard stories of inmates who talk about their well-to-do families and before long a gang boss extorts them for money or threatens to have someone on the outside go after their family.
“I just stayed to myself for the most part. Any altercation that would have happened, I just tried to diffuse by just playing it off, but sometimes it just upset people even more,” he says. “A lot of these guys don’t have a sense of humor, especially ones who were being initiated into gangs while they were incarcerated so they would have to do something.”
Aitken wised up quick, and the daily fights around him became just another regular thing — a part of daily life.
“You develop a new normal,” he says. “Things that typically would freak me out didn’t because that was just part of everyday life all of the sudden. People getting jumped, people trying to extort things from you, whether it’s food or books or whatever it is you might have.”
Aitken didn’t sleep much, either. Lights were constantly on, day and night.
“There’s never complete darkness,” he says. The sounds of men screaming kept him awake most nights.
While in prison, Aitken’s story of injustice spread across the Internet, aided by friends, social media sites, and reports from New Jersey newspapers and blogs. His girlfriend launched a “Free Brian Aitken” Facebook page that reached more than 15,000 supporters and received millions of hits. A link on the page directed supporters to his address in prison, and they sent him hundreds of letters and scores of books.
Brian read voraciously, and finished more than 30 books in jail. It was there that he read Ron Paul’s “The Revolution: A Manifesto,” “The Law” by French classical liberal Frederic Bastiat and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.”
With the public behind him, Aitken’s attorneys petitioned the governor to overrule the judge’s decision.
After nearly four months behind bars, Christie commuted his sentence to “time served” on Dec. 20th, 2010, and Aitken was finally released.
In the two years he spent battling the state of New Jersey, Aitken got to know a group of libertarians who provided some intellectual heft behind his defense. During his plight, pro-free market organizations like Reason Magazine, The Cato Institute and the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) helped get his message out.
Aitken never thought of himself as a libertarian, but two years in the clutches of the state system has changed him completely. Before the arrest, the young, apolitical entrepreneur was on his way to a successful career in digital marketing.
“I never considered myself a person who is really interested in politics,” Aitken says. “But after all this happened I am definitely a hardcore libertarian now.”
Just weeks after his release, Aitken accepted a job directing online outreach efforts for FEE, one of the groups that supported him during his fight with the state.
A free man, Aitken travels on FEE’s behalf speaking to student groups about his story and preaching libertarianism. He was in Washington, D.C. last week at the International Students for Liberty Conference, and has speaking engagements lined up around the country — even one in New Jersey, which he says he was “reluctant” to accept, considering his treatment in the state.
Although he’s technically free, the legal battles are far from over. Since Christie did not grant a full pardon, Aitken is still legally considered an ex-con, and he plans to appeal his case to the Supreme Court if need be.
As for grudges against his accusers and the judge that sentenced him, Aitken has plenty.
“The words ‘pathetic excuse for a man’ come to mind,” Aitken says of the judge who would have let him rot away his prime years in prison. “How can you have any backbone whatsoever when you just pander to whatever your political leanings are?”
But that doesn’t give him back his lost time.
“It was such a waste,” Aitken says of the agonizing months he spent fighting the court system, pleading his innocence and sitting behind bars. “I don’t know how I get the two years back. All the money, all the time that’s been spent. I lost custody of my son over this. How does he ever get his father back? He doesn’t. You don’t get any of these things back.”
Now that Aitken is plugged into a crowd of libertarian activists, he’s working to not only appeal his own case, but help an effort to get the Supreme Court to change New Jersey’s gun laws. From his new home base in Atlanta, Aitken is using the tools developed in the private sector to get FEE’s message out, connecting them with online communities, bloggers and other activists.
On his own time, Aitken says he’s aiming for a landmark Supreme Court gun case for his native state within the next decade.
“We’re trying to change things,” he says.
As for the judge that sentenced Aitken, he’s no longer on the bench. Gov. Christie declined to renew his appointment.