''An 1850s boarding school run by a 1950s trade union," was how I described the Category D - or open - prison where I spent most of my seven months of incarceration for perjury. The phrase, which I originally wrote in a letter to my eldest daughter in 1999, came back to me as I read the third vol-ume of Jeffrey Archer's prison diaries, which describes the time he spent at the D-category HMP North Sea Camp in Lincolnshire. Most prisoners start their sentences at A-category fortresses such as Belmarsh, which are challenging, sometimes frightening places, full of hard men. By the time you get to a D-category, however, the novelty has worn off, the dangers have diminished, and the main experience is one of tedium.
Archer's antidote to boredom was to work hard with his pen. He would often rise at 5.30am, and would scribble away in every spare moment he could snatch from his job at the sentence management unit. His duties consisted mainly of making tea for the unit's 11 staff and filing. Because there were only 220 prisoners at North Sea Camp to have their sentences managed, the unit appears to have been remarkably overstaffed. Immersed in this outpost of the prison service bureaucracy, Archer had to work hard to transform his labours with the kettle and the Fled files (for "full licence eligibility dates") into page-turning stuff. As a result, these diaries move at a slower pace than the first two volumes.
Things pick up when we reach the bust-up between Archer and the prison authorities that began at the home of Gillian Shephard MP. Looked at dispassionately, there can be no doubt that Archer was treated disgracefully. The facts are that in September 2002, Archer was licensed, like all D-category prisoners who have passed their Fled date, for a "town visit" - a day's exeat within a 55-mile radius of the prison. Having had such a licence myself, I know the conditions well. There are behavioural restrictions (no alcohol, and so on), but no limitations on where you can go, so long as you stay within the 55-mile radius. As part of the rehabilitation process prisoners are allowed - indeed, encouraged - to socialise and have meals with old friends.
Archer's alleged breach of these rules was to have had lunch at the Norfolk home of Gillian Shephard. Her house is well within the 55-mile limit, and all sides accept that Archer drank no alcohol. The episode would have passed without notice had it not been picked up by the tabloids, leading to a spate of lurid headlines along the lines of "Jeffrey Archer in champagne-swigging feast with Tory bigwigs". Enter at this point David Blunkett, who sent an intemperate memo to Martin Narey, then director general of the prison service: "I am sick and tired of reading Jeffrey Archer stories about the cushy conditions in which he was placed, the freedom he has been given and the opportunity to do whatever he likes and the snook he is cocking at all of us." For good measure the Home Secretary added: "I expect you to take immediate and decisive disciplinary action."
Within hours, Archer was arrested, put into a segregation cell, and then shipped out to Lincoln Prison (one of the toughest high-security jails in Britain), where he had a miserable time. All this was done on the direct orders of Martin Narey, although the governor of North Sea Camp subsequently made it clear that he disagreed with the unjustified punishment.
The question that arises is: what did Archer do wrong? Narey alleged that Archer's licence for his town visit stipulated that he should not go anywhere else but home. Archer's denial of this was corroborated by all the other inmates issued with town-visit licences for that day. In theory, these conflicts of evidence are easy to resolve, because the terms of each licence are written in the individual prisoner's passbook, and this is retained by the prison. But guess what? Archer's passbook is "unable to be located" by the prison service.
Although Archer plays down the suffering caused by this disquieting episode, I have no doubt that his time in prison was unhappier than he has let on in previous volumes of his diaries. In this book, ironically called Heaven, he reveals his pain in greater detail and with far more poignancy than ever before. For example, he describes how a fellow prisoner who is being released says goodbye to him with the words: "Your cheeriness and willingness to listen to anyone else's problems has surprised everyone here." Archer reciprocates with pleasantries, but when he gets back to the privacy of his cell he confides to his diary:
I can't tell him I have no choice. It's all an act. I am hopelessly unhappy, dejected and broken. I smile when I am at my lowest, I laugh when I see no humour, I help others when I need help myself. I am alone. If I were to show any sign, even for a moment, of what I'm going through, I would have to read the details in some tabloid the following day. Everything I do is only a phone call away from a friendly journalist with an open chequebook. I don't know where I have found the strength to maintain this facade and never break down in anyone's presence.
So Archer's time inside was emotionally turbulent, despite his outward show of resilience. I think the same is true of most prison journeys, mine included. After reading this diary, for all its occasional bursts of cockiness and anger, no one should doubt that a prison sentence is a painful experience.
Jonathan Aitken served time at both HMP Belmarsh and HMP North Sea Camp