PRISONS

Belgium 2011 - 2014 / Reportage & text  by Sébastien Van Malleghem

Read the publication on TIMEDe Standaard & De Volkskrant

 Shadow patterns are seen on the head of a prisoner talking to a guard on the other side of the fence. The warrant was playing a bit of radio music for the inmate who decided to go breathing in the courtyard. Audenaarde is considered as a calm and familial prison for long term detainee. Audenaarde, Belgium, August 2014

Shadow patterns are seen on the head of a prisoner talking to a guard on the other side of the fence. The warrant was playing a bit of radio music for the inmate who decided to go breathing in the courtyard. Audenaarde is considered as a calm and familial prison for long term detainee. Audenaarde, Belgium, August 2014

Prisons aims at opening our eyes on inmates; casting light on the failures of an obsolete judicial and penal system which remains to this day inscribed in the country that taught me the ideals of justice and humanity.

Why do we turn a blind eye on those broken lives? On those whose lives are ruined?

These images show the cracks and, in this light, reveal the toll taken by a societal model bringing out tension and aggressiveness, amplifying failure, excess and insanity, faith and passion, poverty. They expose how difficult it is to handle what steps out of line, in a time when this line is more and more defined by the touched-up colors of standardization, of the web and reality TV. Always further from life, from our life: locked up in the idyllic, yet confined, space of our TV and computer screens.

 View of a wing inside the prison of Ghent, Belgium, December 2013

View of a wing inside the prison of Ghent, Belgium, December 2013

Still, what is questioned here is not the need to put away and keep an eye on criminals. My pictures mean to condemn the archaic and opaque fence built around those men and women on the side, this wall eroding their humanity, under the pretence of crime, or insanity.

This reporting means to show the misery resulting from being deprived of freedom and human relations, from being confined in cells worthy of gothic novels or horror movies, from failure too. Failing a real escape only to escape in drugs and unsound relationships. These baleful, distraught faces, victim and mirror of passions born in our urban theaters, are our dark side. Frightening. Reassuring also, in the emptiness left by an exile enabling oblivion, ignorance and self-satisfaction.

 Three mentally ill prisoners are smoking at the entrance of the inner courtyard in Paifve's prison. Liège, Belgium - February 2011

Three mentally ill prisoners are smoking at the entrance of the inner courtyard in Paifve's prison. Liège, Belgium - February 2011

Because the principle of reality does not obey oblivion nor denial. Behind the closed doors of prisons, it imposes itself through cries of hatred, rage or despair. Cries that mingle with the steel doors slamming on overcrowded cells. It gives birth to children in filthy cages, within enclosures topped with barbed wire. It fans violence, favors psychological abuse, power abuse, smuggling, corruption and gives way, probably more acutely than on the outside, to the power of money.

In prison, the principles of deprivation and punishment are emphasized: no contact with family members, no moral or affective support, no courtyard, extreme confinement in six-square-meter “holes” reeking of faeces, impregnating blind walls…

 A female prisoner sunbathing at the women's prison in Berkendaele, in Brussels. This courtyard is located next to a men's prison, whose cells offer a direct view on the women's courtyard. Women enjoy mocking men or expose themselves to their sight. Brussels, Belgium - July, 2011

A female prisoner sunbathing at the women's prison in Berkendaele, in Brussels. This courtyard is located next to a men's prison, whose cells offer a direct view on the women's courtyard. Women enjoy mocking men or expose themselves to their sight. Brussels, Belgium - July, 2011

To contain this growing violence, the explosion of these tensions, the State hires: the assurance of a steady job for an average wage…

Prison officer: the assurance of a tiresome and disregarded job, sometimes dangerous and often too far away from home; the assurance of a monthly salary, for sure, but certainly too low to avoid corruption.

Teachers: if crime runs in your veins, what hope is there for rehabilitation once you have paid your debt to society?

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Psychologists: the assurance of feeling powerless in front of a pathogenic system, a rotting administration, defiant patients, mentally retarded or insane. The observation made by a psychologist working in a social protection establishment (prison for those who have been judged mentally incompetent) is edifying: “Here, it’s the worst, you can’t go any lower in the social structure, for many it’s the end of the road”. Of course, there are always drugs available, the possibility to rent game consoles; addiction and irresponsibility in lieu of penitentiary assistants.

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To reach these human beings, eight months of research were needed, eight months of requests addressed to a pretty timid administration, yet willing to spread images witnessing reality instead of ministers’ views and speeches. That reality is sordid; it affects the notion of “human being”, not through the question of crime itself, but that of the response given by society and by the judicial system, and the way punishment is carried out.

 Inmates watching a film inside the movie theater of their prison in Ghent, Belgium. March 2014.

Inmates watching a film inside the movie theater of their prison in Ghent, Belgium. March 2014.

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Or watch the web documentary below on "Le Temps" newspaper from switzerland (french)