Meeting with Laurent Moulin and Stéphanie Guilmain, two people in charge of the Haren neighborhood committee which organizes walks and maintains the trails. When they tried to contact the owners of a part of the Kelbeek, they realized that the mega-prison project in Haren went much further than they had been told. Starting from a concern to protect green spaces, the struggle quickly turned into a political struggle with the need to raise citizens’ awareness in front of the media which does not do it, to confront politicians with their contradictions. In the end, perhaps, a profound and interesting change in the democratic life of the neighborhood.
Kairos: How did it all start?
Stéphanie: « I am from Haren and I am a member of the neighborhood committee. I learned about the prison project through the media because there was no consultation about it. At first they said it was a small prison for about 300 inmates and when we were begged, because that’s what it really was, information, we were rather misinformed and then they came up with this super mega project… »
Uninformed, you mean who uninformed you?
« The Federal, the political bodies… we were going to ask for information and it was « don’t worry, nothing is done, it will only be on the disused factories », and blah blah blah… »
Laurent: « In January 2012, Thielemans again mentioned the Nato site for the prison project. »
So you go to them and you realize…
Stephanie: « … Let them play us! »
Laurent: « and we keep going from ‘too late’ to ‘too early’ ».
You discover the project through the media. What do they say at the beginning?
Stephanie: »« For the replacement of the prisons in Forest, Saint-Gilles, Berkendael, they found a site in Haren to build a prison. » They don’t say the size, just that they found a site. »
Laurent: « When we contacted the owners of the land, it was in December 2011, we wrote to the city, we did not receive a response; in January 2012, there was the neighborhood forum where we were not sure: « nothing is done », « it is on the site of Nato » … in early February, it is there that there is a call for tenders for consortia for the construction of a prison of 1190 inmates in Haren. There, we begged effectively to have an appointment with the building authority, which after cancellation, still took place, and where we saw all the land that they were still busy buying and that, obviously, there were workshops with the city at that time. The city claimed that they were only made aware in February of the extent, when it is very clear that the administration had information, but it was not shared. And the politicians, especially Thielemans, still had the luxury of talking nonsense in front of all the residents. »
When the committee finds out, how do they react?
« So the first thing we did was inform, so we brought in quite a bit of press to try to reach the residents. »
Did they come?
« Yes, we did « Picture in Picture ».
many Flemish presses. To show that it is a green space, that was our driving force: we wanted to show that it was used and that it was beautiful and not a lost, unused place to be valorized because that is how the project is sold: « it is ugly, the prison is going to… »… the city dared to say that it was an opportunity for Haren. In September 2012 we challenged the College asking how this was an opportunity. They’ve been ranting about a whole bunch of things that they’ve been doing forever in Haren and that there’s really no problem, they’ve really gone around… »
But how do they say this is an opportunity?
« Well, that’s just it, they didn’t know how to answer. »
They did talk about youth employment.
« The main thing is ‘it will increase the frequencies’… »
.. and it will be good for the merchants…
« Yes, that’s also good for the shopkeepers, it will increase the frequency of public transport and eventually employment. A person from the village who works for the employment unit of the city of Brussels said « we will no longer fight against it, we will make it happen », talking about employment. But the question is « do we want a large proportion of Haren to be prison guards? »
In this sense, the people who were not on the committee, whom you will see, who perhaps at the beginning were more concerned about mobility problems and the fear of not being able to drive anymore, are there some among them who at some point can go beyond this personal interest and think more at a societal level?
Stephanie: « On the social level, I’ll just tell you a reflection of the young people « ah well, they found the money to make a prison but they didn’t find it to make us a proper soccer field ». »
Laurent : » But afterwards, the discussion with the adults is not always easy to bring. For example, at the moment, young people are making fires, playing with their motorcycles, and once with a neighbor we were talking and I said to him » if there is no longer this space, the young people will start fires in the village », to which he replies « that’swhy we need more cops in the village ». This was one of the advantages that some inhabitants saw in it, it was more cops in the village. One of the fears of the inhabitants is that we are far from the police station and the police patrols and they feel a little lost. But then there are many residents who are very adamant, when we were talking about the prison, they were ready to send them more to the foreign country, « at least it’s good it will cost less.… « . »
Stephanie: « … « Bury them… »
Laurent: « « Bury them », I haven’t heard (laughs)… but send them abroad… »
Stephanie: « … In fact, with Isabelle from IEB, we were going around to try to raise awareness, in the cafes, there was a small group of old people who were typing the card and who said « ah but it doesn’t matter, let’s do like in the movie and bury them underground… ». They were a little bit into science fiction. »
That’s kind of what’s going on, what’s being shown on TV. Has this question of the prison, in the collective conscience of the Harenois, evolved a little?
Laurent : « I think it has evolved a lot. Stephanie participated in the urban workshops, they made posters, there are residents who put up posters in a whole neighborhood and it was a way to talk, including the first photos we saw of the project: « ah, it’s three stars, etc… « and then we managed to talk to people and they said « ah yes, indeed, it is not three stars, it is not cool to be locked up ». So you realize that when you take people one by one and bring the discussions like that, they’re reasonable and they’re totally on board with saying that we need something social, we need something for our youth. You meet other people as well, and the people who are walking around are very receptive to the discussion now and have been able to evolve into awareness about the prison. »
Stéphanie: « We also made a 20-minute video documentary with IEB’s urban workshops where we met a lot of professionals. Where we are really surprised is that these professionals all say that this project is a failure and that it must be stopped. But the train is on its way and they don’t want to slow it down. Finally, we don’t listen to the professionals, we don’t listen to the inmates and the parents of inmates. When we screened the film here in Haren, we had people from Haren but also from Diegem, Machelen, and we had debates with professionals and this really opened people’s consciousness and changed their way of seeing. People always say « we don’t punish at all in Belgium, there is no justice », but it’s so easy to scare people! In France there was a poster campaign « Ebola is in the street », everyone was very afraid, they looked at their neighbors; well here, they do the same thing but with another message: « there is no security ». Just yesterday I was talking to someone who said to me « it’s going to be nice in Haren, if you have a prison you’re going to have cameras in your streets « , but I don’t want cameras in the streets, that’s fine, we’re already watched enough as it is. »
And do the Harenois realize that behind this, there are private interests essentially?
« Yes, we already explained to them what the public-private partnership was, they didn’t know at all. We explained to them what was at stake and that the public authorities will have to find so much money and that they will find it in the taxes by creating new taxes. The question is « do you now think that we are in a state where we have to be super-protected; do you want a tank on the corner of your street »? You really have to go deep into the images with the people. »
Laurent : « And that’s really what we feel as a change now: before we tried to defend our green space and then we were answered in the media ».yes, but the situation in the Forest prison… « , and finally we were very small and we said to ourselves » yes but in fact it is us who are ignoble« Today, thanks to this awareness, to this film, we understand better the reality, we realize that it is human beings inside and that in fact the problem is us, who put all these people inside. I’m amazed now how easy it is to talk to anyone in the village, people are like ‘but it’s really sad to put all these people in jail and stuff’. »
We dehumanize the prisoners obviously, so there are people who have become aware that they are human beings inside?
« Well, already us! »
Stéphanie: « When we made the film, we met the neighbors of the Saint-Gilles and Forest prison who explained their daily life as neighbors and there was a lady who said « you really have to realize that these are our neighbors, we don’t know them, we don’t meet them on the street, they are here, they are in our backyard… they are our neighbors ». When they come back from a walk, by the way, they are called by number, it’s cattle that we come back! When you go into prison, you lose your citizenship. Even visitors are mistreated. Even if the inmates are there because of something they did, they are still human beings. »
Yes, and the question of facts, it is society that says which facts are punishable.
Laurent: « Yes, exactly. »
To come back to the role of the press, you said that they came right away, but what did they do afterwards? I tell myself that if the media had done their job, this would be better known, if they had questioned the people they never question…
« At the very beginning, it was 100% in relation to mobility and green space. Afterwards, we fed the debate, but we have not yet had any great discussions in the media about the place of the prison in society. At least this fight against prison will have made us a little more human. »
« At least this fight against prison will have made us a little more human »
So it’s kind of paradoxically through the struggle against something that you realize, that you meet… but do you still think that there are some who won’t change?
« There are still people who call for the death penalty today! We have abolished slavery, but we have not yet abolished the way prisons are made. I didn’t know that abolitionists existed for prisons. When we say that, we mean « yeah, but your girls are going to be raped in the street », but I say » but my daughters get run over by cars first, and then look, we educate our children but we don’t educate them by locking them in their room ». Here, I’m thinking, if we can really start a citizen’s movement and not just experts in the field, we can finally get to something bigger. »
Stéphanie: « I would like to react to what was said, that it is a Brussels and Belgian struggle. I will simply give the image of this road that leads us to Diegem, this link is historical and has always been used, and as much as on the level of politics we talk about separatism, this link is a foot in the door because it connects us to Flanders, the Flemish come to us and we go to them and we meet. We don’t feel that we are only from Brussels, only from Haren or only from the Netherlands, we are friends and we meet each other. It’s really very symbolic, and destroying this link is still giving a reason to some to say that separatism is a good thing. »
Otherwise, besides the fact that some people now realize that these constructions are for private interests, could there also be a debate on the fact that these are « prisons of misery », that it is the poverty and especially the austerity that they are building that will bring more prisoners and that they could very well leave the prisons of Forest and Saint-Gilles open [en plus de celle de Haren].
Laurent: « The Keelbeek allows for a whole series of other discussions. On a large scale, it is difficult to know if many Harenois have evolved but it is true that more and more Harenois are going to Kelbeek and even if the prison remains a difficult subject, there is humanization of all that and awareness. Just this morning, people were saying « what we need is space for our children, guidance for our families, social support for everyone (…) we see misery and that’s what we should be doing rather than locking up our children « . »
They always come in with a big mess at the beginning, you don’t worry that they’ll say at some point « we’re going to make a smaller prison and we’re going to bring you into the discussion ».
« From the beginning, they have said that they are going to integrate us and so far we have not seen anything. It really makes sense not to just trust the institutions, especially since the answers we have received so far are very evasive: we met with the federal government who said « but we haven’t decided where, it’s the Building Authority », then the Building Authority says « we execute. »
And on the other hand, it’s the private sector that is thinking about what to do?
« Exactly. And then we realize that the Court of Auditors has denounced the project, that the requested studies have not been done. »
And this questioning of putting back, thinking all things together, no media has relayed it?
Stephanie: « No, the media didn’t report that. »
So even when you talk about them and see them…
« By the way, it’s true that when the media talk about it, it’s always the same points; they’ve taken up what interested them, and then there’s often the ‘ah, but we’ll see with the chief editor what we can or cannot publish’. »
Laurent : « It would be nice if by not putting the crowds to sleep, we could do something. And precisely, the way we evolve, the way the debates evolve, gives me relative confidence. At the beginning we are afraid and we just defend our green space, and then we say to ourselves that these decisions are badly taken. And if at the very least the decisions in power are made emotionally, that at least we get to put the right emotion out there. »
Perhaps we should not wait for politicians to always make the decisions, and initiate a fundamental change in our democracies.
« It also depends on people’s willingness to react, and right now I think one of the big problems is not only that « they are rotten upstairs » but that many react emotionally. We saw it with Dutroux: big popular movement but it wasn’t positive for prisons at all. »
We remain in this logic « there is no alternative », while you said no and proposed the farm project.
« Yes, I think we need to go further and also propose alternatives. It’s not by crushing more of those who already have problems that we’re going to save our kids. It’s by allowing other kids to grow up like ours. »
Interview by A.P., March 2015