Guislain exhibition breaks the silence around mentally ill inmates


A new exhibition at the Musem Dr Guislain in Ghent focuses on the treatment of mentally ill offenders in Belgian prisons and highlights positive change

Raising the bar

Chronic overcrowding in psychiatric institutions is one reason why more than one in five mentally ill offenders in Belgium ends up in prison, without full mental health care. Many have committed crimes for which they are not considered legally responsible due to psychiatric conditions, leading to lengthier incarceration. Since 1998, the situation has been officially condemned 23 times by the European Court of Human Rights.

But things are improving. The number of such vulnerable people being held in prisons has gone down from 1,000 a year ago to just over 700 now, and a law came into effect last year providing for more humane treatment of people in this position. A major new centre is due to open in Antwerp, and there have been significant political breakthroughs.

The new law was the inspiration for the latest exhibition at Ghent’s Museum Dr Guislain, which is housed in a former asylum and focuses on mental health issues in its temporary and permanent shows. 

“This is an important political moment, and things are changing,” says Patrick Allegaert, the museum’s artistic director. “There are fewer people in prison and more in psychiatric institutions. It’s a very positive evolution.”   

Historically, Belgium has been relatively progressive in its attitude towards – and treatment of – mental health, but this is a difficult issue. It’s at the intersection of justice and public health, the ministers for which are frequently from different political parties.

Facts of life

(Un)treated is a mixture of original photography, video, archive documents and outsider art. More than an indictment of an unacceptable situation, it also highlights positive change. Ministers Maggie De Block (health) and Koen Geens (justice) were both at the opening of the exhibition, and say they are committed to resolving the problem.

The first exhibit is based on the life of Piet van Haut, a notorious Flemish fraudster. Newspaper articles are plastered all over a wall, and a video interview plays.

There are fewer people in prison and more in psychiatric institutions. It’s a very positive evolution

- Patrick Allegaert

“We wanted to show this man’s personal story,” explains curator Yoon-Hee Lamot. “He speaks about how lonely he is, his childhood, how he buys friendship. He talks about how when he flies, he buys chocolate to give to the crew so they’ll be nice to him.” Van Haut was considered not responsible for his actions by reason of mental illness and was interned. He has since been released and regularly visits other detainees.

Filmmaker Ellen Vermeulen made a documentary for the exhibition, called 9999. It refers to the year of expected release written on a person’s documents when they’re committed. In other words: never. It’s full of long, silent shots of bare rooms, of washed-out clothes and complexions. In one lingering off-white frame, your eyes adjust until it becomes clear you’re staring at a wall, just like the people living there. It screams monotony, tedium, isolation.

“There’s no dialogue, only background noise,” says Lamot. “It’s just about being confronted with yourself the whole time. Waiting.” Allegaert: “Waiting for nothing.”

‘The system is changing’

Next is a section of outsider art - work by self-taught artists; typically psychiatric patients and children - by inmates held either in prison or in a psychiatric centre, and a place where visitors can sit and listen to recordings from Radio Begijnenstraat, which invites men detained in Antwerp prison to make a radio show using fictional and real-life stories, texts and music. The museum hopes to organise a live broadcast from the exhibition shortly.

In each section of the exhibition, and continuing in the courtyard outside, there are black and white photos by award-winning photographer Sébastien Van Malleghem, whose work deals with marginalisation and failure. Many of the photos were taken in psychiatric institutions where he spent several days.

What would I advise to other interned people? Don’t despair

- Former inmate Leonart

A recent evolution in care for mentally ill offenders is the establishment of a forensic psychiatric centre in Ghent, which holds more than 250 people; a second is due to open soon in Antwerp. These are high-security institutions that provide tailor-made care in a clinical setting, with the aim of returning people to society. Psychiatric problems vary widely and can include personality disorders, psychotic conditions, anxiety and depression, drug and alcohol addiction and sexual offences.

There are also pathways of secure units and homes providing care for medium-risk patients. One such unit is in Leuven, and is home to a man called Leonart, who is filmed talking about his situation in the final exhibit. 

“Leonart killed someone, and was recently moved from prison to long-stay sheltered housing after more than 20 years,” Allegaert says. “He knows he will have to live there for the rest of his days, but he’s happy there.”

It’s a relatively new development, he continues, “and politicians increasingly want to get people with psychiatric illnesses out of the prison system and into psychiatric care, or specialised centres like this. The policy now is that prison is not the right environment for these people and they need treatment.” 

Whether the perpetrator is of sound mind or not, their acts nevertheless have victims, who recently gained the possibility to have their voices heard. When a court is deciding if an interned person still presents a risk, the victims’ concerns are taken into account. One wall of the show is covered in letters from victims and their families explaining the impact on their lives. Some are forgiving, others less so.

But the final word goes to Leonart. “What would I advise to other interned people? Don’t despair. I am convinced there will be other long-stay centres established in the future and you’ll be out of prison. The system is changing.”