Ghent non-profit counsels prisoners, with remarkable results


The organisation Touché has been providing aggression therapy to prisoners in East Flanders for eight years, greatly reducing the risk of re-offences


“If you find a weed, you don’t plough your entire garden. You just pull up that one weed.” That, in essence, is the theory behind solution-focused therapy, and it has helped bring down crime statistics in Flanders.

The non-profit organisation Touché in Ghent uses solution-focused therapy – which concentrates on the future rather than the past – to counsel all its clients. Nearly all of Touché’s clients are prisoners or ex-convicts.

Touché was started eight years ago by three Ghent-area therapists – Marjan Gryson, Katrien Dalle and Moira Verhofstadt – who felt there was not enough emphasis on therapy for offenders that specifically focused on aggression. They work with several prisons in East Flanders, including those in Ghent, Dendermonde, Oudenaarde and Beveren.

The results have been nothing short of remarkable. Aside from a sharp drop in ex-prisoners re-offending for violent crimes, convicts who have spent years in the Touché programme have formed their own outreach organisation to help at-risk youth stay out of prison. Based in the Oudenaarde prison, its latest venture is a theatre piece that will be performed for the public at the end of the month.

Statistics from other countries show that offering therapy to prisoners “has a much better effect on re-offending behaviour than the prison term itself,” says Gryson. “Our first raw data shows the same tendency among our clients.”

In Belgium as a whole, nearly 58% of ex-convicts re-offend and go back to prison. But the number of those who were jailed for violent crimes who re-offend is much worse: A full 75% wind up back behind bars.

The number of prisoners in for violent crime who have gone through the Touché programme and wind up back in prison for a violent crime is, according to data thus far, 17%.

Escaping the trap

“When you are young, there are support networks set up to help you, but once you are an adult, it becomes a lot more difficult,” says Erwin Mortier, one of Touché’s therapists. “You get trapped in a vicious cycle of re-offending. So what we do is help them to break out of that trap.”

They do this through a variety of methods, including individual and group therapy, both inside and outside the prison. Some prisoners are allowed a pass to visit the Touché offices near Citadelpark in Ghent for therapy. There, they can also bring an advocate with them if they choose – someone they trust who is committed to helping them with their aggressive tendencies.

We try to help the prisoner find the positive spark in his life and not get snowed under by problems

- Therapist Erwin Mortier

“We try to immediately get to the heart of the solution,” explains Mortier, who studied at the Korzybski Institute in Bruges, which specialises in solution-focused therapy. Most of the therapists who work with Touché have been through that institute. “That’s useful because we all kind of speak the same language,” he says. “We are always trying to focus on strength and possibilities and contacts. We try to help the prisoner find the positive spark in his life and not get snowed under by problems and difficulties and that baggage that keeps us from moving forward.”

Mortier – who is responsible for the garden metaphor – says that prisoners often think “they have lost everything,” but the therapists force them to reconsider their current situation and resources. “’You’re still alive, and you still have this person and this person supporting you, how come?’” they might ask them. “‘What have you done to get to the point of still having these things?’ That strength, that survival instinct runs through all of our work with them.”

They also challenge them to rethink how they can act in any situation. “I ask them: ‘Can you envision another person doing something else in that situation? Give me another resolution to that situation. And another one. And another one.’”

“Not monsters”

Mortier poses these questions, he emphasises, “always in the form of a question, not as a directive. I want them to come to me with solutions. I’m not looking at them as the big, bad wolf.”

Which brings up a valid point: safety. Does he really want violent criminals in his office? “I have never personally experienced any aggression towards myself, whether I’m in the prison or here,” he responds. “I’m not scared of them. They’re not monsters. Aggression is something we are supposed to be afraid of, but the reality is that every person has a few buttons you can push. You discover them in therapy. I can push those buttons or not. And I can help you to not get so angry when someone else pushes them.”

He also points out that Touché therapists do not start out with preconceived notions. “If I treat them with respect, they treat me with respect. Anger never starts in a vacuum. It’s always an interaction. That can be a physical interaction or a psychological one.”

Touché is also quite well known among East Flanders’ prisoners at this point, and – whether they voluntarily enter counselling or are required to do so by prison authorities – they are well aware of the confidentiality policy. “We are an independent organisation,” explains Mortier. “We do not report any information to prison authorities or anyone else. Prisoners know that they can speak freely. Touché is a safe haven.”

Touché also works with ex-convicts, particularly if they already started therapy while in prison. Mortier himself travels to the prison in Bruges to work with someone who was transferred from a prison in East Flanders. “We have a very close relationship with these people,” he says.

Aggression as the norm

Aside from trying to remind prisoners that they have had resources in their lives that have gotten them this far, Touché therapists try to teach them how to use them.

“Say your train is late, and you have an appointment,” says Mortier. “You make a phone call; you send a text message explaining that you will be late. You’re still angry, but you can cope with it. You have your resources, and you aren’t afraid to use them. But some people don’t have all these resources, or aren’t able to recognise and use what resources they do have. Seeing the problem as an isolated incident and not piling all the problems of the past on top of it – that’s how solution-focused therapy works.”

Aggression is contextual, and it’s very personal. It’s linked to a concept of identity

- Erwin Mortier

But none of this is where therapy tends to actually start. Therapy usually starts with recognising what aggressive behaviour is. It sounds pretty simple, but when you grow up with aggression all around you, explains Mortier, you begin to think of it as the norm.

“If you grow up in a neighbourhood where fighting and stealing is necessary for you to survive, then aggression is normal,” explains Mortier. “But if you then do that on the bus, it’s not seen that way. Aggression is contextual, and it’s very personal. It’s linked to a concept of identity.”

This is a theme that is at the heart of Play Again, a theatre piece by Rebecca Tanghe of Educatief Theater Antwerpen (ETA), which produces theatre on social issues to perform at schools. Together with actor Wim Van de Velde, she worked with a group of 10 prisoners in Oudenaarde who are part of the Project Group.

This group of prisoners, explains Mortier, had come as far as they could through Touche's programme but still wanted to be involved. “They were like, ‘now what?’ They wanted their voices to be heard beyond the prison walls and asked how we could help them do that. How could we give a voice to the unknown?”

So the Project Group was born, and their first initiative was to make a movie called Binneninzicht (Inside Insight) with Ghent director Nic Balthazar. The film finds the members of the Project Group talking about their lives with young people who have already had brushes with the law.

“They are now ambassadors of Touché,” says Mortier. “They can rephrase the solutions they found through us into a language that troubled youth understand.”

A second chance

Play Again, meanwhile, stars Tanghe and Van de Velde as a counsellor and prisoner, respectively. The prisoner, says Tanghe, “gets the opportunity to replay his life – do it over again. But it’s not that easy.”

Tanghe, who has been involved in several ETA productions, said she wanted to work on a piece specifically focused on aggression. “In primary school, teachers work with children on their aggressive behaviour, and there’s a lot of attention given to bullying. But when the kids get older, there’s less time for this.”

So she contacted Touché, which put her in touch with the Project Group. After two sessions of rewriting based on the prisoners’ feedback, the piece was ready, and it will soon premiere at the prison itself. “It was all new to me: the prison, the stories, their frustrations,” says Tanghe. “It was a very, very touching experience.”

She had previously starred in an ETA play about sexual harassment and domestic abuse. “I talked with a lot of the victims, but never with the perpetrators. They were just ‘evil’,” she says. “But I knew the reality was much more complex. Why does someone grow into such an aggressive person? I think if you understand why, you can change it. The prisoners we talked to all wanted to change.”

Play Again, 27 November 18.30, Oudenaarde prison, Bourgondiëstraat 6; email for ticket information

Photo courtesy Touché