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Actor Matthias Schoenaerts makes a passionate plea for more humanity in an Antwerp prison

“I am not a fan of politics,” Matthias Schoenaerts (42) says upfront. “But in Belgium, we have a prison system where more than 80 percent of prisoners are released at one point. And what happens to those guys within the walls? Nothing. Our prisons are from the 19th century. When you enter, you are taken back by what you see. When I look at those corridors, the poor light, and the dimensions of those cells, I can’t help but think: ‘What are we doing? You’re making people even crazier.’ That’s what we are doing.”

The well-known Antwerp actor is sharp. Due to corona, he has lived a different life in recent months. No Hollywood, but back to the roots. His time went to graffiti and art under his alias Zenith. “These are very bizarre times, too abstract for words,” he says. “But on the other hand, I am happy to be at home for a long period of time, which allows me the opportunity to revive my old passion.”

The result is an impressive graffiti mural in the prison of Antwerp in the Begijnenstraat, on which he worked together with several inmates and artist Larsen Bervoets. The official presentation took place on Wednesday, in the presence of Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne. The graffiti wall is a sequel to a similar work of art in the prison of Oudenaarde. Matthias Schoenaerts simply has a thing for cell walls and prisoners. “Actually, I just mainly care about life and people in all its aspects,” he says. “And yes, I feel a kind of compassion for prisoners. I don’t know where that comes from. But I want to stick up for people who are struggling. People who have taken a hit.”


Photos: Filip Van Roe

Criminal impulse

To make it clear: the actor realizes that prisoners are not ‘inside’ for no reason. Often it concerns serious facts with serious consequences. “And everyone is responsible for their actions. But not necessarily for the impulses that precede them”, Schoenaerts explains. “What I am saying is that criminal impulse is often the result of an imbalance in a person. I am thinking of pressure, tension, loneliness, fear. In younger generations, we also face a lot more mental illness today. Borderline, bipolar disorder, manic-depression, drug addiction, and so on. That puts a huge burden on people, sometimes ending up in jail. And I think the real problem is that they don’t work on that in prison.”

The actor is striving for a Scandinavian prison model, in which detention offers a much more humane treatment according to him. “In Norway, people think about illnesses and cures in prison. We still have a culture of guilt and penance. We need to get rid of that retaliation and continuous hammering on the crime that was committed. They’ve already been punished by sitting in there. But there is so much talent, that we have to look for the soul of those inmates and stimulate it. So that their time becomes beneficial and they come out better.”

Music therapy and acting classes

According to Schoenaerts, projects such as Cellmade, which stimulate labor in prison, are already a step in the right direction. There are numerous workshops that companies can call upon. But it should be much broader, according to the actor. “I really mean it, I believe in music therapy and artistic classes. I would very much like to start an acting course where I can also teach. I also think that other artists in Belgium should stand up to give workshops. Why not? None of that should cost that much money. People got to show up. Do something for those people. Now.”

According to Schoenaerts, everything revolves around the soul and heart of the people. “It may sound melodramatic, but so be it. We need emotion today. We have to look for the good in the people, especially in the prisons, and work on that together. It is not for me to rethink a political system, but I can only ask to finally be a bit warmer and softer towards each other. And yes, also for prisoners.”


Photos: Filip Van Roe

“We have to work with detainees from day one”

Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD), the new Minister of Justice, agrees with Matthias Schoenaerts. According to him, much more work must be done immediately on meaningful detention. He promises to release a significant sum to focus more on counseling detainees and preventing recidivism.

Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne and actor Matthias Schoenaerts first met each other on Wednesday during the presentation of the graffiti mural in the prison of Antwerp. “It is a great honor that Matthias Schoenaerts is committed to a non-obvious cause,” says the Minister. “Because when you talk about prisons it is popular to use the words “oblivion” and “neglect of punishment.” But I want to support meaningful detention. I think that even 95 percent of the inmates will be released at one point. We, therefore, have to actively prepare those people for reintegration and that is why I want to work with them from the first day they arrive in prison.”

In concrete terms, Van Quickenborne believes that more attention should be paid to the inmates’ personality. What their home situation is, for example, or where they are at financially. To help provide more structure in their lives according to their needs.

He, therefore, wants to make more guidance for prisoners a priority. “In line with a Scandinavian model, in which penitentiary officers do much more than guard the corridors.” The prison in Haren, which will open in 2022, should become a great example of this. But the Minister of Justice realizes that there is a cost to provide an extra guidance for prisoners. “We can invest up to 300 million euros in justice and we will dedicate a significant amount to the prisons.”

Like Schoenaerts, Van Quickenborne is also a fan of artistic projects within the prison walls. He hopes that creativity will help bring the high recidivism rate – almost one in two prisoners is currently relapsing – down. “It simply shouldn’t be the case that people get out of prison worse than they go in. We are going to work hard on that. ”

Thanks to Cellmade with coordinator Kathleen Van De Vijver – also known within ICPA as a spokeswoman and the coordinator of international projects of the Belgian Prison Service, a number of detainees cooperated with Matthias and Larsen. Among other things, they adapted the poem and some areas of colour. Cellmade is the autonomous service within the prison system that organises prison work for external companies all over Belgium. Inmates are employed in various workshops within the walls of 35 prisons. Make confection over cheese. From metalworking to bookbinding. It is a meaningful day job for detainees, a chance to take responsibility as well.

During the Corona period they have already produced 122,000 mouth masks. The Minister Van Quickenborne and the artists wore these masks during the press inauguration to show their appreciation of this initiative.

The prison system gave all the support for this work of art. With which they also want to give the message to think along and to work towards more humane detention. It makes the message of the artwork even more powerful.

“This initiative could not be better timed. The current pandemic deprives too many detainees of longer than is good prospects for the future. And sometimes, suddenly there is some colourful light in this darkness.” says Rudy Van De Voorde, Director General of the Prison Service.

Published on: 17 November 2020

Author: Marc Klifman (Source: Het Nieuwsblad [])

Author: Marc Klifman, Het Nieuwsblad