Wel­come to Ho­tel Prison

For 12 months, Jan de Cock trav­elled the globe meet­ing shack­led pris­on­ers on death row in Thai­land, dy­ing of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in Rus­sia, al­lowed to talk for only one hour a day in Tokyo or dy­ing of star­va­tion in Congo. Anthea Ay­ache meets him

Friday - - Society - aay­ache@gulfnews.com @AntheaAy­ache

It was the smell that hit him first, the kind of pu­trid­ity that em­anates from a cramped, air­less room in which 250 Con­golese pris­on­ers lan­guished, their starv­ing bod­ies forced to sleep in filth from over­flow­ing la­trines. Through the few heav­ily barred win­dows, thin shafts of light from a dy­ing African sun re­vealed men, young and old, their sunken cheek­bones and rot­ting wounds tes­ta­ment to the poverty un­leashed by war in the coun­try. As crick­ets be­gan their evening song out­side and in­side malaria-car­ry­ing mos­qui­tos roamed free, Jan de Cock, who was 30 years old at the time, took his first vol­un­tary step in­side.

This was Kangabyi prison in Beni, in the north east­ern Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo (DRC), one of the world’s worst pris­ons and where at the time two in­mates a week were dy­ing from star­va­tion. For the next 30 days, this was to be Jan’s home. The Bel­gian na­tional was not in this African hell­hole with a warped will to ex­pe­ri­ence the worst the world has to of­fer, but rather to high­light the plight of a marginalised and of­ten-for­got­ten sec­tor of so­ci­ety – a mo­ti­va­tion born years ear­lier when, as a young man, Jan had vol­un­teered to teach at Ser­vi­cio Paz y Jus­ti­cia, an or­gan­i­sa­tion help­ing street kids, in the fi­nal years of Au­gusto Pinochet’s dic­ta­tor­ship in Chile.

“I was work­ing mainly with glue-sniff­ing kids,” Jan, now 48, re­calls, “but so many of them in the slum ar­eas where we ran a re­hab cen­tre ended up in prison, in the end I was asked to set up our full-time work­shops in the jail.”

Ini­tially this was not some­thing that Jan was par­tic­u­larly happy about. He had trav­elled to Chile to work on the streets, not in­side the con­fines of a state-run pen­i­ten­tiary, but as an al­tru­is­tic so­cial worker he ac­cepted the role, aware that his pri­or­ity would be to help en­cour­age those be­hind bars.

“It was an eye-opener to dis­cover that the val­ues I wanted to take in were al­ready there,” he says. “The pris­on­ers started to teach me about pa­tience, cre­ativ­ity, gen­eros­ity. Their hos­pi­tal­ity is some­thing that to this day I keep on ex­pe­ri­enc­ing; I never en­ter a cell with­out be­ing of­fered some­thing, even if it’s a bis­cuit they have saved from their lunch. Back then I was struck by their in­cred­i­ble willpower and thought, ‘Where does it come from?’ I just knew I had to show this to the world.”

Jan un­der­stood, how­ever, that in or­der to ef­fec­tively raise aware­ness of the lives of pris­on­ers he would have to un­der­stand their plight fully. And to do that he would have to live among them. “When I was a teacher I taught first-grade pupils and de­cided to get down on my knees and look at the world from the chil­dren’s point of view. One of the things I im­me­di­ately did was move the posters on the walls down by one me­tre. It taught me that you have to get as close as you can with the peo­ple with who you work. It was sim­i­lar with the in­mates… I spent my first night in prison and it changed my life.”

Fight­ing for ac­cess

Jan wanted to stay in a prison in Chile where he had been work­ing. “But when I ex­plained the idea to the war­den he said, ‘Her­mano Juan [Brother Jan], this is a prob­lem be­cause I have to jus­tify that ev­ery­one in­side has com­mit­ted a crime’.”

Re­turn­ing to Bel­gium, it would take a fur­ther three years of plan­ning be­fore Jan’s

12-month tour of pris­ons got un­der way, a plan that was in­spired while work­ing with in­mates in An­twerp. “Ini­tially the idea was to just spend one year in one prison. But when I was in Bel­gium, a Colom­bian pris­oner told me if I wanted to write about cor­rup­tion, I should visit jails in Latin Amer­ica. He was shar­ing his cell with a Rus­sian guy who said if I wanted to talk about tu­ber­cu­lo­sis then I had bet­ter visit Rus­sian pris­ons. And the guy in the next cell was from Nige­ria and he said some of the worst pris­ons are in Africa. That’s when the whole idea came about.”

Writ­ing to em­bassies, con­sulates, aid or­gan­i­sa­tions and for­mer in­mates with prison con­nec­tions, Jan fi­nally put into place an agenda that would al­low him to spend 12 months vis­it­ing 67 of the world’s pris­ons across 42 coun­tries. Not all the coun­tries were ac­com­mo­dat­ing, how­ever, and of course, those were the pris­ons in which he most wanted to be in­car­cer­ated.

“Re­gard­less of all the con­tacts that I had in China, I was not able to get ac­cess to a prison there,” he says, “so I had to be cre­ative.” Know­ing that he would face prose­cu­tion for ap­proach­ing sol­diers stand­ing guard on Tianan­men Square, Jan de­cided to do ex­actly that. “It’s for­bid­den to give flow­ers to the sol­diers there,” he says, “let alone putting a card on the flower say­ing ‘Peace and Free­dom’. So I went to the first guard and gave him one and be­cause first and fore­most he was hu­man, he took it, went red and said thank you. The sec­ond one had seen what had hap­pened to his col­league but firmly said ‘no’.” Bol­stered by the cer­tainty that the guards are not al­lowed to move, Jan placed the flower in his shirt buttonhole and con­tin­ued to do the same to the next 10 guards be­fore he heard the po­lice van.

His plan was suc­cess­ful and Jan was re­manded in cus­tody for a few days. “They kept me in soli­tary con­fine­ment. At night they would wake us up ev­ery 20 min­utes. Those serv­ing longer sen­tences stay in cells with up to 20 other in­mates and forced labour and beat­ings are com­mon. I’d wanted to be taken to jail and it was only af­ter that I started think­ing I could have been in a lot more trou­ble.”

And trou­ble is some­thing Jan would see a great deal of over his 12 months of prison vis­its, where he would spend a few hours, the night, a week or even a month along­side a coun­try’s crim­i­nals. “I started with three months in jails across Africa,” he says. “My first night was in Rwanda in a prison built for 2,000 but hous­ing about 7,000. That was my first ex­pe­ri­ence of over­crowd­ing; we had 40 sq cm per per­son and were lit­er­ally squashed to­gether. Since that time I have been in pris­ons where we had to take sleep­ing in turns be­cause there was no room for ev­ery­one to lie down.”

Over­crowd­ing was some­thing Jan would have to be­come ac­cus­tomed to soon. “A few

weeks later I was in Mada­gas­car where I saw a cell in which the women were all locked up in such a small room that they had to sleep side by side like spoons and they had their kids with them. Around 42 of the 46 women in that room had been sen­tenced for the same crime – steal­ing food to feed their chil­dren. They had all re­ceived the same sen­tences of up to five years.”

Re­turn­ing to over­crowd­ing he adds, “In Benin, DRC, for ex­am­ple we were so many peo­ple in a small room that the first group slept un­til 12.30am, then they would wake up and stand against the wall while the next group lay down. I was there over Christ­mas and New Year and an in­mate died from malaria but the guards re­fused to open the door and pick up the dead body. They thought it was a New Year’s prank.”

Jan’s ex­pe­ri­ences, which are both plen­ti­ful and heart­break­ing, show the strength and re­silience of hu­man na­ture in the face of soul-de­stroy­ing ad­ver­sity and are told in his book, Ho­tel Prison. Page by page he re­counts the hor­rors, dis­ci­pline and vi­o­lence to which in­mates are sub­jected to daily across the globe and he draws com­par­isons be­tween coun­tries as a whole through the barred win­dow of their na­tional jails. “Show me a prison and I will tell you about the democ­racy of that coun­try,” he says. “You can use pris­ons to mea­sure the health­care and ed­u­ca­tion lev­els of a coun­try.

“In Nor­way, for ex­am­ple, they have a prison on an is­land, with no bars. All the in­mates are trained to live in a com­mu­nity. There are houses and you live in groups of six or eight. Apart from the fact that we had to work in turns, cook­ing, do­ing laun­dry, etc, dur­ing the day we had to work on the farm and fish­ing and the whole sys­tem was con­nected to the health­care and ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in the coun­try.”

This is a far cry from the ram­shackle di­lap­i­da­tion he would wit­ness in the de­vel­op­ing world where wel­fare rarely reaches the most vul­ner­a­ble, let alone the jails.

Af­ter the book was pub­lished, de­spite its bru­tal hon­esty, Jan con­tin­ued to be flooded by in­vi­ta­tions from jails across the globe. But it was the ex­pe­ri­ence in one prison in par­tic­u­lar – the month in the Beni prison in DRC, that give birth to his prison rights foun­da­tion, Within-With­out-Walls (WWW).

Star­va­tion and filth

“When I ar­rived in the Beni prison in Congo I won­dered if it could get any worse,” Jan says. “The place was lit­er­ally fall­ing apart and the pris­on­ers hadn’t eaten for two weeks.

“In many African coun­tries the sys­tem does not pro­vide food for in­mates so they are de­pen­dent on their fam­i­lies to bring in meals but at that time the guards had not been paid so they were tak­ing the food be­ing brought in. Fam­i­lies are not al­lowed to visit their loved ones un­less they give food to the guards and many sim­ply can’t af­ford it.”

Jan wrote his sec­ond book, The Cel­lars of Congo fo­cused solely on the in­mates of Kangabyi.

“I found my­self among peo­ple who were lit­er­ally starv­ing, there was no wa­ter and the prison had an av­er­age of two peo­ple dy­ing ev­ery week,” he re­mem­bers. “The la­trine area was foul, the toi­lets were over­flow­ing up to four or five me­tres around them and the worst part was the wall be­tween the la­trines and fe­male sec­tion had fallen apart so the women were lit­er­ally sleep­ing in its con­tents. Around 70 per cent of them were very sick.”

When his 30 days were up, Jan knew he sim­ply could not just walk away from such a des­o­late place. “The war­den was des­per­ate,” he re­counts. “He was in tears, and he sim­ply didn’t know what to do to keep th­ese peo­ple alive. He begged me to help them.”

Jan de­cided to re­turn to Bel­gium to raise $240,000 (Dh880,800) to build the in­mates a new prison. “That was the be­gin­ning of the

foun­da­tion be­cause I just couldn’t do it alone. I had done small things up to that point – I had bought five cows for a prison farm in Mada­gas­car; and fans for a prison in Mex­ico but this was on a whole other level!”

That fund-rais­ing started in 2006 and thanks to the ded­i­ca­tion and the gen­eros­ity of do­na­tions from the likes of stu­dents of a lo­cal pri­mary school that held a Lent cam­paign for the pris­on­ers, the new jail was in­au­gu­rated in 2008.

The Black Hole

On com­ple­tion of the new Beni prison, Jan was yet again in­un­dated by re­quests from other coun­tries to help build new pris­ons. “We started anti-malaria pro­grammes in Benin, pro­vid­ing nets and med­i­ca­tion for all the pris­on­ers. We built the first youth prison in Bo­livia with a li­brary and green­house.”

The foun­da­tion has also since se­cured im­prove­ments such as mat­tresses for pris­on­ers in Haiti and medicines for sick pris­on­ers in Mada­gas­car but to­day their ef­forts are firmly con­cen­trated in Uganda where they are build­ing the coun­try’s first youth de­ten­tion cen­tre. “Five years ago when I was fol­low­ing up on a prison project in Congo, I had to go through Kam­pala,” Jan says. “Some­body asked me if I had been to Kam­par­ingisa, the chil­dren’s prison 40km out of town. I went and I just couldn’t be­lieve my eyes. Right now there are around 400 chil­dren from the ages of three to 17 in there.”

Lo­cated in the Mpigi Dis­trict on the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal Kam­pala, the cen­tre holds chil­dren who have fallen foul of the law, but ac­cord­ing to aid or­gan­i­sa­tions, it is also hold­ing many street kids in­clud­ing ba­bies and tod­dlers who have done noth­ing other than fail to have birth cer­tifi­cates.

“Po­lice with huge trucks col­lect kids from the streets and take them to that prison,” he says. “And if the fam­ily doesn’t col­lect the kids they stay there un­til they are 18. For the first six weeks they go to the Black Hole, a place with no light and no toi­lets and if they sur­vive – many don’t – they are taken to the cells.”

Aid work­ers who have en­tered the prison claim the toi­lets are over­flow­ing, the kitchen is un­us­able, there is no run­ning wa­ter and the mat­tresses, of­ten shared by mul­ti­ple chil­dren are filthy and cov­ered with yet dirt­ier blan­kets. His char­ity is to­day work­ing along­side another or­gan­i­sa­tion Food Step, set up by Bel­gian cou­ple Werner and Nathalie Steur­baut.

“When they first en­tered the chil­dren’s de­ten­tion cen­tre not one of the kids had clothes on,” says Jan. “And when I got there for the first time, I was shocked to see all th­ese chil­dren with scars on their fore­heads or arms. They were the ex-child sol­diers and the scars are the points that they got ev­ery time they killed some­one. Cloth­ing and feed­ing them is one thing but deal­ing with that trauma is more than chal­leng­ing.”

Food Step now not only en­ters the cen­tre once a week to pro­vide them with a daily meal and clothes, but works tire­lessly to have the in­no­cent re­leased. So far Jan says 65 have been freed thanks to their ef­forts.

“It’s ter­ri­fy­ing, it’s heart-break­ing but some­how th­ese kids keep on laugh­ing. Last time I brought many things in­clud­ing un­der­wear and the girls were so happy they were jump­ing with joy. They are so grate­ful and happy,” he says.

What started out as a test of en­durance for Jan who, by trav­el­ling across five con­ti­nents wanted to high­light the over­crowd­ing, vi­o­lence, lack of food, lack of san­i­ta­tion and ex­treme dis­ci­pline per­me­at­ing many of the world’s worst pris­ons, ended as con­fir­ma­tion in the beauty of the hu­man spirit. “I have since dis­cov­ered that in ev­ery sin­gle in­mate there is al­ways some­thing good in­side,” he says. “When you build that trust and you touch a soul, there is al­ways some­thing beau­ti­ful that can blos­som. I don’t want to make light of crime or what I have wit­nessed, I have seen hell but, be­lieve me, fear never has the last word.”

The DRC pris­ons were over­crowded, but a big­ger worry was lack of food

Jan in the prison in Beni, DRC, that in­spired his char­ity

Jan shares a drink with in­mates in a jail in Brazil

The Beni prison be­fore and, right, af­ter Jan helped raise funds to im­prove it

Jan at a de­ten­tion cen­tre for chil­dren in the DRC

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