Project brings dialogue between society and prisoners

Friday, March 23, 2007

The participants in the project got the chance to meet and discuss with the inmates in an informal setting.
The civilians first visited the prison of Tongeren which serves as a museum site since 2005.

A project aimed at feelings of insecurity in society took place over the last month in Belgium. Reintegration consultants Frank Geets and Geert Van Aerschot from the Central and Auxiliary Prison in Leuven came up with the idea to allow a group of citizens to experience the life of prisoners in a more realistic fashion.

Together with criminology Prof. Johan Deklerck from the Catholic University of Leuven, the city's civil servant for crime prevention and two local socio-cultural training centres, and with the support of the King Boudewijn Foundation and the Justice Department, they started the project under the header "KAFFEE DETINEE" (Eng. Detention Café), to stress the informal manner in which they wanted to bring together detainees and civilians.

To introduce the group of 30 civilians to the world of prisons, they first went to the oldest prison of Belgium in Tongeren, which has been transformed into a museum since 2005. Later the participants got the chance to visit both prisons in Leuven. They got to know the infrastructure, the prison regime, and they got to meet the gaolers and the prisoners.

With this exchange between the world inside and outside prisons, the participants and organisation think that at least some myths people have from movies and television were adjusted. According to Prof. Deklerck, the project is unique in Europe.

Interview with Prof. Deklerck and a participant

Wikinews interviewed Prof. Johan Deklerck, and one of the civilians who participated in the project, Katrien Vanwildemeersch.

Prof. Johan Deklerck:

  There are a lot of prejudices about the prison world, which are enforced by the media, sometimes deliberately. During this project there were some authentic encounters, which were really beautiful. Some people were afraid, or were very angry at the prisoners. But we were able to dislodge some biases. One woman had a very firm point of view when we started, she said to me: 'I don't know anymore... They are sympathetic nevertheless.'. The prisoners are people too, even if they have done horrible things.

We have to work on reintegration. People hear about it if prisoners who are released after 10 years begin again. How to use the time in prison in such a way that this improves, is an important matter.


Katrien Vanwildemeersch:

  In here, you are lived, you don't have to make any choices. If you come back outside, everything is so complicated.

We got to know the difference between the images from television and movies and the reality. We got the chance to talk to real people. For days, I saw the image before me of the detainee that sat in front of me, thinking: 'now he is still there, and in two years he will still be there'.

There was a big difference between the closed cells in the Auxilliary prison and the open regimen in the Central prison. To be locked inside the prison, is the punishment in itself. And those isolation cells, they were not pretty to see.


Prof. Johan Deklerck:

The prisoners got to show the visitors the inside of their cell in the Leuven Auxilliary prison.
  To be imprisoned is the punishment in itself; to be locked inside the prison walls. A prisoner once said to me: 'In my cell, I have a stereo, a television set, a coffee machine, a bed,... but you can have it all if I could get out.

But, how do we spend that time in prison? There is a lot of room for improvement in that area. We have to work on restoration: on the restitution of the prisoner's self, restitution for the victim and for society.

Within the financial margins, we see that one prison has a good policy, whereas another has an old-fashioned prison model. The policy of the government is determined locally. I think we could book results if we could work consequently and intensely on restoration for a number of years. And maybe even shorten the time of the prison sentence. After all, a night in prison costs society as much as a night in the Hilton hotel.


Wikinews: Maybe what strengthens the feelings of insecurity in society, is the law Lejeune, which allows a prisoner to be released after he has served only a third of his sentence. Would it not be better to say: 'We sentence you for 7 years, but if you misbehave after that, you will automatically get 14 years more'?

Prof. Johan Deklerck:

  Of course, the judges calcute that into their judgement. And there are control mechanisms once they enter society. The system allows for more control. The courts responsible for the execution of the punishments decide based on the inmates file. The system is sometimes thought of in an oversimplified manner. The control mechanisms are very important. Those two ways of saying it are very different.  

Interview with an inmate

The visitors got a prison meal.

Frederik (fictional name):

  In this project, we got the opportunity to talk with some pleasant people from the outside. They got a whole other look on the prison life and the people. People have the idea that prison is like in the movies, but it's not like that in Belgium. Of course there are problems with drugs and aggression, but nothing compared to the image from American movies. The image that people have is not very realistic. The project contributed to a different image.

The surplus value of this project for us was the personal contact with the outside world. Their image is not always that negative. They got to see the cells, how we eat, how we live. We got to say what we think for once.

Some people came to look at my cell, and I wanted to give them the chance to see everything without limitations. In the corridor someone engaged in a conversation with me, very spontaneously, not knowing that I was a prisoner. Afterwards, that person told me she really didn't expect that I was a prisoner. That really moved me.

The only criticism I had for the project is that the visitors from outside where only here a limited time. I felt that some left with a pile of unanswered questions.

This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.