New project gives inmates pencils, cameras and self-esteem


A new European project led by a Flemish writers’ association wants to open lawmakers’ eyes to the untapped potential of the arts behind bars

“Not just a criminal”

For two years, the European art and advocacy programme Parol! has given prison inmates across the continent an opportunity to nurture their inner artists. They rose to the occasion, and the results are now on show in a multidisciplinary group exhibition at the MuntPunt library and information centre in Brussels.

The modern prison has a chequered past. In the radical 1960s, activist intellectuals like Michel Foucault and Félix Guattari condemned the institution for failing to live up to its promise of justice and rehabilitation. All too often, it doled out disproportionate punishment to those from society’s most vulnerable communities. And since then, all but the most regressive governments have at least attempted prison reform – with mixed results.

The subject still inflames passions on both sides. The forces of order say law enforcement isn’t a pretty business, but it’s a necessary one. Prisoners’ rights advocates argue that the Dirty Harry approach is counterproductive. Not only do human-rights infringements betray our fundamental democratic values, they say; they also guarantee recidivism and perpetuate the vicious circle of violence.

The European project Parol! enters the debate through the side door of culture. Artists and inmates at 13 prisons in Belgium, Greece, Italy, Poland and Serbia embarked on a two-year collaboration that has produced a wealth of art and renewed the discussion around rehabilitation.

A bottom-up approach

Although it was realised by an international network of arts and advocacy organisations, led by Flemish amateur writers’ association Creatief Schrijven, Parol! was conceived by one person. Diederik De Beir was already an established haiku poet in his native Ghent when he took a post teaching Dutch at the prison of Dendermonde in 2010. It was there that he realised the untapped potential of arts education behind bars. 

Inmates stripped of their freedom can have as much artistic talent as citizens living in freedom

- Parol! founder Diederik De Beir

“When I became a teacher in prison, I realised just how disadvantaged and vulnerable inmates are in society,” De Beir tells me. “I was shocked to discover that the government subsidises technical education in prison but not arts instruction.”

De Beir resolved to do something about it, but he had to start small. He lobbied the then warden of the prison of Oudenaarde, also an artist, to greenlight a cultural programme. Only after this local success, did De Beir envision a similar project on a European scale. In De Beir’s view, it would still need to progress organically, like the Dendermonde experiment.

“I strongly believe in a bottom-up approach,” he says. “In the beginning, I didn’t seek support from any organisations. I wanted to approach artists and prison management directly.  I needed the freedom to develop my concept without any obligations.”

An exercise in citizenship

Once De Beir fleshed out his plan and found international partners, like Athens’ Amaka and Warsaw’s Slawek Foundation, the Parol! team made a funding pitch to the European Culture Programme. This wasn’t to be a social programme but a cultural project with a social subtext.

“I wanted to prove to society that inmates stripped of their freedom can have just as much artistic talent as citizens living in freedom,” De Beir says. “I learned from my Dendermonde experience that artwork produced in this way could be seen as tangible cultural heritage.”

And once prisoners are able to demonstrate their fundamental humanity through culture, the question of crime and punishment can be answered through citizenship rather than zoo keeping.

“At the end of the day, Parol! is all about free citizens embracing their civic responsibility and choosing to meet the incarcerated through art,” De Beir says. “In doing so, they give disadvantaged inmates a chance to develop their creative and social skills as a stepping stone for their reintegration into society. The inmates take up their responsibility for their reintegration by collaborating with artists to produce their own work. This responsibility for reintegration is bidirectional and can be seen as an exercise in citizenship and inclusion.”

Parol! officially kicked off in 2013. Its first phase was a series of intra-muros activities. Partner artists entered the prison, led workshops and initiated projects in the literary and visual arts.

It was a revelation for both parties. The artists discovered the grim reality of life behind bars. The inmates discovered their own expressive potential.

One Flemish inmate told me: “It was my first experience with art; it opened my eyes to a whole new world.” Another added: “Parol! gave me the chance to show that I’m not just a criminal. I’m a person with my own feelings, joy and sadness.”

Cross-prison art

In keeping with the European theme, Parol! facilitated exchange between participating prisons through an innovative system of “art boxes”. Each package is a work-in-progress, a question waiting to be answered.

It was my first experience with art; it opened my eyes to a whole new world

- Parol! participant

“It’s wonderful,” says De Beir. “Artistic work is sent from one prison to another and then returned with creative input. In this way, a network is being created between European prisons, crossing walls and borders.”

By 2014, Parol! was ready to break out beyond the prison gates with a series of exhibitions and conferences throughout the host countries, including Belgium. A library in Dendermonde, East Flanders, for instance, recently wrapped Paper Wins over Stone, a showcase of artwork created behind that city’s prison walls under the tutelage of De Beir and Pietro Tartamella, founder of Italian literary association Cascina Macondo. 

Many Dendermonde pieces, along with works from the 12 other participating institutions, are now bound for Brussels’ Muntpunt. The free exhibition X is the culmination of two years of discovery and exchange. There’s poetry and photography by Flemish inmates, video art by Greek prisoners, an illustrated slang dictionary compiled by Serbian inmates and much, much more.

Looking ahead

It’s no coincidence that Parol! makes its last stand in Brussels. De Beir and co are targeting both the viewing public and European decision-makers, who will eventually have to reckon with the prison problem.

“With X, we hope to raise awareness among the public in general but also among governments and policymakers,” says De Beir. “Art and creativity in prisons are stepping stones to reintegration into society. I hope that governments will consider subsidising art education with professional artists and art teachers.”

Politics aside, exhibition curator Karel Verhoeven made sure that all works on show could stand on their own artistic merits. Yes, the political message is important, but the goal of Parol! wasn’t to prove that inmates could simply make art; Parol! was founded on the premise that, given the right conditions, inmates could make compelling art.

No debriefing would be complete, of course, without a look toward the future. Included in the month-long MuntOunt programme is a Forum Day on 6 March in which Parol! partners will brainstorm their next move.

“This could be,” De Beir hopes, “the beginning of a new, sustainable initiative.”
5 March to 4 April at Muntpunt, Muntplein 6, Brussels

Photo: A photograph taken by a Parol! participant in the PSC Hoogstraten prison in Antwerp province