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
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