Luk Vervaet interviews former Belgian prisoner Jean-Marc Mahy, author of the play A Man Standing based on his own experience of solitary confinement
Can a human being survive solitary confinement?
Can he overcome being locked-up in long term isolation, called by detainees, academics and activists for human rights around the world “white torture”, “a form of psychological warfare” inside cells that are “tombs of silence” ?
Prison is in itself part of a hidden world. This world is doubly hidden when it turns into supermax imprisonment or supermax sections inside normal prisons. Few outsiders know what life is like in these pits of oblivion. Whether they are the families of prisoners, the media, lawyers or academics: their contacts with supermax units are limited, reserved for selected locations, and human contacts go on behind glass. There are very few witnesses who have suffered this inhuman treatment who can, or want to, testify about it.
This is what makes the testimony of Jean-Marc Mahy particularly valuable and unique. A prisoner for 19 years, he had lived in 1987, at the age of 19, for 36 months in what he calls “the land of the dead.” It happened in a prison in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
Returned to normal prison life after three years of solitary confinement, Jean-Marc filed a complaint in court against his treatment, being contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Thirty inmates joined his complaint. Parliamentarians came to inspect the prison. Because of this juridicial action, Jean-Marc was put under a terrible pressure during the following two years, sometimes threatened with death by prison guards. At this time, a new law came out allowing detainees with Belgian nationality, like Jean-Marc, to be transferred from a prison in a foreign country back to Belgium.
But Belgium no longer wanted him. It was Luxembourg that put the pressure on Belgium to accept his transfer. In 1992, a reception committee of the police was waiting for him at the border. Alive, but psychologically scarred, he was taken to the courthouse in Liege where the prosecutor warned him: “We didn’t want you here. But here you are. I’ll be clear with you. If you even try to take the wall and escape again, you will be shot. Your death certificate is signed.”
Jean-Marc answered him that he had no intention of escaping any more. And that he accepted his sentence. In 1993, he began a training as an electrician. It would be the first of a series of degrees he obtained in prison in the seven years that followed. But at the same time, he sought another way to escape and forget prison: during those seven years, he’d become addicted to drugs circulating in prison. From this addiction, he was to liberate himself through his own forces in 2000.
“A man standing”
His struggle against long term solitary confinement and the scars it left didn’t stop there. Freed on parole in 2003, Jean-Marc realized with Jean-Michel Van den Eeyden, director and theatre manager of the Anchor (see cadre : Who is Jean-Michel Van den Eeyden?) an overwhelming theatre play: “A man standing.”
This monologue of an hour and a half, played by himself, without any mask, takes us into the silent tomb where he was held for 1100 days. In this play, Jean-Marc is alone on an empty stage, coloured in oppressive black. There is just a stool in a cell, whose contours he defines with white tape on the floor. On tour in Belgium and France (Paris, Avignon, Grenoble) since 2010, the piece was played nearly 170 times, each time filling the theatre rooms. Among them, 1500 students in Charleroi, the home town of the Anchor theatre. During his tour, Jean-Marc has received more than 6000 letters from young people, describing their reactions and perceptions after seeing the play. A version of the play subtitled in Dutch has been played in the city of Mechelen.
Jean- Marc and Jean-Michel are now aiming to present their play in London. A few months ago, with the permission of his judicial officer, Jean-Marc Mahy went to London to start looking for theatre companies, willing to program the piece. On 16 September, after 10 years on parole (from 2003 to 2013), Jean-Marc will be a free man again. At that date, he will have spent thirty years of his life in prison or on parole. On this occasion, I asked Jean-Marc to tell us about his past and about his play. And he took me on a journey that was dominated by violence, physical or psychological, always on the cutting edge, always between life and death. He assumes his past and his deeds without looking for excuses. It reminded me of the often repeated phrase in Mickey B, a film based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and made and played by prisoners: “Things that have been done, can’t be undone “. Jean-Marc doesn’t ask for our forgiveness. He only tries to give a sense to the life that has been left to him, conveying a message of humanity. Looking to help young people in trouble, like he was 30 years ago, to realize their life. Especially for them he describes his descent into hell and how he came out as “a Man Standing”.
Luk Vervaet: You start your play saying: “good evening, my name is Jean-Marc Mahy. I’m not an actor, but I invite you to revisit a part of my past life with me”. And you end the play with the phrase : “Out of respect for my victims and for those who got involved in my story against their will, I wont come back to salute you “. Can you tell us what happened ?
Jean-Marc Mahy: Today, I am 46. Until the age of 17, I lived in Brussels. As a young kid, I became part of a group of young offenders from Forest and Jette, two municipalities of Brussels. Family, love.., I found them on the streets. I really had no intention to become a delinquent. And yet, I fell into crime. At the age of 16 I had already been arrested for breaking up a school and for committing petty thefts. But nothing very serious until then.
At 17, on my own free will, I went to a juvenile court at the Court house in Brussels to seek some help. I wanted to meet a judge because I had been running away from home. I was desperate. The Judge didn’t have the time to see me. He put me in a cell for 24 hours. In the morning, he saw me for 5 minutes. He showed me the huge amount of files on his desk. He told me he was busy with juvenile offenders, not with children in danger. So he told me to go home and come back with my father. Which I did. And my father told the judge: it’s ok, I take my kid with me. That was it.
My father worked at night. And I was already in a situation where I had no longer a frame or a reference to hold on. I continued to go out at night. One day, on November 24, 1984, my girlfriend did not come to the appointment we had made. I was pretty upset. At that moment, two friends invited me to join them for a burglary and rob an old man. They had done it several times before. For me, it would be my first time. The old man wasn’t supposed to be at home. But he was. He recognized one of my accomplices and everything turned wrong. He wanted to call the police, wanted to take his rifle from the wall. We panicked and I knocked him out. There was no trace of blood.
The following days, I called him. Hoping he would take up the phone, he or his little son who passed normally to see every day. Without success. On 30 November, I read in the press that the old man had died in hospital. Following this tragedy, one of my associates and I decided to flee. First to Holland. And from there to Latin America. That’s how we reasoned at that time, it was the kind of delusion we had in our heads.
That same evening my two accomplices, Alain and Abdel, and I were arrested. I was first imprisoned for fifteen days in the prison of Saint-Gilles. At that time, there was no law in Belgium that prohibited the locking up of minors in a prison for adults. Then I was transferred to an ortho-educational state centre for juveniles, that had just opened. There I found a fairly balanced life. I was surrounded by people who took me in hand, a good psychologist and good teachers. In the morning I went to school, in the afternoon I played sports. But my court case would only start six months later, when I just became 18. The juvenile court declined jurisdiction of the case and I was delivered to the adult justice system. On 31 May 1985, I was transferred from the youth centre to the prison in Nivelles. There, I made a first suicide attempt. I lost a litre of blood. I was saved by prison guards.
A year later, on 25 April 1986, I was transferred to Forest prison, because at Nivelles, they had suspicions that I wanted to escape. At Forest prison, I was filled up with drugs from morning to night by a psychiatrist called “the Indian”. Our trial before the Court in Brussels began on 17 September 1986. We weren’t conscious of what was happening to us. We were really still kids. And very nervous. We laughed amongst us when we crossed nearly sixty people in the courtyard. We didn’t knew that among them were all the members of the jury of our trial. In court, I didn’t want to be an actor in my trial. I yelled at the jurors, who had made my mother cry. That was enough for me. On 21 November 1986, I was sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment. The two others to 10 and 12 years. I was in rage.
In January 87, I was transferred to the prison of Arlon, the farthest in Belgium, denying my request for a transfer to a prison where I had family living nearby. The director in Arlon was already well informed of my bad reputation. When I arrived, he told me I had to prepare myself to do two-thirds of my sentence. They put me in a cell with four. Among them, Tony, who was sentenced to life imprisonment. I had known him in the ortho-educational youth center, where I had been before. He too had been discharged by the juvenile court. Tony was already in Arlon for two years. I remember him receiving a very cold letter from his lawyer saying that going in appeal was no option in Belgium, and go to the Court of Cassation made no sense neither. So, the lawyer wrote, he was going assume his life sentence. We tore the letter into pieces. There was no hope.
Tony and I decided to find a way to escape from prison. We needed to find a third person to come with us. This third man was older then us and, so I learned afterwards, an alcoholic capable of drinking sixty beers a day, and very violent. On April 13, 1987, we escaped, taking a prison officer as an hostage. Once outside, we stopped a car, we threw the driver out, we left the hostage behind and fled. We didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know how to drive a car. Tony neither. We depended on our third man as a driver. He wanted to see his family and was capable of breaking through the police roadblocks. We crossed the Belgian border with the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which was not far from Arlon. What had to happen, happened there in a pub. Two policemen recognized us as the wanted escapees. They wanted to arrest us. They didn’t call for reinforcements, they wanted to clear the job themselves. Our third man, who used to rebel against the police when he was drunk, grabbed his knife and threw himself on one of the two policemen. If this hadn’t happened, we would simply have been arrested.
He yelled at me to take the weapon of the other policeman, which I did within a second. I had never used a gun or shot someone, but this time I did and I shot twice. It’s strange what happens at such moments. I don’t say this as an excuse. Doctors later told me that I was under a superhuman stress. I had had a partial amnesia. When I ran out of the pub, I didn’t feel I had a gun in my hand. A hundred meters further, this gun weighed a ton. The policeman died from his injuries. We were arrested ten minutes later.
On 5 December 1988, we appeared before the court. Everything was over and done within five hours. In court they spoke German and Luxembourgish, languages I didn’t understand. There were only policemen in the audience. Except for the widow of the policeman and her daughter. It will be my encounter with this little kid, from whom I took the father away, that provoked my change and salvation. In court, the only thing that was said in my favour was that I didn’t had the intention to kill the policeman.
On 19 December 1988 I was sentenced to life imprisonment. I didn’t appeal. Because they had told me this would mean an extension of my isolation. And also because they had told me that if I did, I would cause the certain death of my partner Tony, who was already at a breaking point .
LV: Why did the prison authorities put you in isolation?
Jean-Marc Mahy: I was put in the isolation block from the moment I was arrested. When I arrived into that prison, the isolation section of the prison had only opened for six months. They had constructed it for a gang called “The Family.” A gang who had killed many people. For me, the reason why they immediately put me there, was because they thought I wasn’t going to survive this treatment. For those put in the isolation block, it was as if the authorities had concluded that normal prison for them was useless. The only thing that was left for them was destruction. Everything was done to dehumanize you and to destroy you. For Tony, my accomplice, who was also there, they succeeded. He, who could neither read or write, became literally crazy after 14 months. I’ve seen people who weren’t capable of speaking any more for months after having spent six months under these conditions. Nine out of ten of those who are in isolation are going crazy or die there. In the play, I talk about Victor, a fellow prisoner, who cut the tongue in this dungeon. I also came close to death. Isolation, loneliness, to be exposed nude in a hallway, being submitted to anal searches.. it all drove me towards a new suicide attempt, as I show in the play .
LV: You show us how your life took another turn after your failed suicide attempt
Jean-Marc Mahy: A few days after my suicide attempt, I was allowed to read the newspapers. I read that the night of my failed attempt, five people had successfully commit suicide. I was convinced that a miracle had happened to me. I decided that from now on I should live. I decided to look for help inside myself, because there was no one who would help me here anyway. The only one who can help you is yourself. When I first had entered the isolation block I had read this sentence: “Here you enter as a lion, you’ll get out like a lamb.” In the end I came out as a man standing. Or this other sentence: “You will find everything here, except help.” I had to find help inside myself. This is where I became another man. I discovered my qualities and my potential, and also my faults, that I had carried always inside me. I decided to work on the wealth that was in me, that must have been there since I was born, actually.
LV: In the play, you insist on all the books you read, and later, when they gave you a radio, on all the educational programs you followed, which allowed you to survive.
Jean-Marc Mahy: Yes, I quote a lot of titles of the comics and the books I’ve read during my time in isolation. Some of them, I’v even read several times, because they often gave me back the same books. By playing A Man standing, I soon realized that these were all titles that the young people of today never heard of. They don’t know who is Sidonie or Simenon or Papillon. But it doesn’t matter. They understand that reading helped me to find a way out. I heard that this has motivated some youngsters in the centres for young offenders, who could neither read or write, to ask for lessons to learn it.
If I have to say what is the prevailing feeling inside a prison, I’d say it’s the feeling of the time that is lost. It is perhaps the greatest violence that can be subjected to someone. All the days are alike. If you ask me for a date of something that happened during the last ten years, I won’t be able to answer. While all the dates of my twenty years in prison, I know them all by heart, because it was the only day when something happened. In prison time passes three times slower than on the outside. In such conditions, you must decide to make your brain function . Otherwise you become a vegetable. An object, that doesn’t move any more. You become someone who is obsessed by only one thing : how to run away from a world where there is nothing. Literally nothing.
The greatest books that have saved me in prison are first of all the Bible and later the Koran, because they were the only ones I had access to. Then came Solzhenitsyn and the gulags. Then all the books I’ve read about the nazi concentration camps. The book on the priest Sébastian Kolbe, who took the place of a father in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. The SS who watched over the gas chambers were traumatized for life, hearing the 300 people trapped in this bunker singing and praying until their last moment. There is the book on Nelson Mandela. The Edward Bunker trilogy. Tazmamart, the prison of the living death in Morocco, by Ahmed Marzouki. Through my reading I discovered the human capacity to overcome death by solidarity, by singing or by prayer. I have done some drawing too. And when they gave me a radio, I listened to the music. To live, a human being must continue to invent stories. To keep on dreaming.
LV: Violence is a pervasive theme in both your past and in prison. In the play, you are showing us the world of prisons as an extremely violent world. But you don’t show the physical violence, besides some cell searches and a few times when they hit you and bully you.
Jean-Marc Mahy: We didn’t want to show beatings or physical abuse in prison. We wanted to show in an hour and a half the institutional violence that can be put upon a human being. I believe this kind of violence can kill a person or transform him into a human bomb. At the same time, we wanted to testify about my life and what led me to violent crime. Thus, the piece is a form of catharsis. A purification for both elements. The public is confronted in a brutal way with my past and with prison, a world they do not know. And then there are four moments in the piece: the moment of the mirror, where I learn that I killed the policeman. The conversation with my mother, which strikes so many young people in the audience. The moment of the attempted suicide. The moment of Victor, who cut his tongue, out of despair. On March 27, 1990, I leave the isolation block, as a survivor. When I left the land of the dead for the land of the living, I made a promise to myself, from now on, if I can do something for other people, I will do it.
The experience of prison life stays with you for the rest of your life. Ten years after my release on parole, I still keep the scars of my years in prison. It appears in things that may seem trivial to you. I always close the door of the room where I sleep, at home or in a house with friends, because I don’t feel safe. The nights in prison were often noisy, there are shouts, there is music. But when you’re alone in your cell, locked up, you are safe, there is nothing that can happen to you. I can be alone for days without seeing anyone, without a phone call, without a contact. It is as if I have been conditioned to it. During my last year in isolation, there was no one who came to see if you were still alive. I just saw the hands of someone pushing the plate with their foot true my cell door. I saw no one, not a guard for a week. Even today, I sometimes need to consult a psychologist about this. I need it.
The theme of violence is an important theme for young people of today. I’m no longer a violent man, but I still have anger inside me. But it is an anger that is healthy and positive. That’s why I say to young people : you can have violence and anger in you. But don’t keep it inside you. Talk about it. Make contact with people. Anger and violence can make you grow. But if you keep them inside you, one day, for a triviality, for a stupidity, it will come out like a hurricane. The theatre was salvation for me. This cell on stage is like a ring to me. The violence and anger in me, I can express it now in a non-violent way.
After some performances in Villeneuve, near Paris, a young man wrote to me saying: “I admire you for your courage to talk about your life to an audience you don’t even know. You did it without wanting to give an answer to all my problems. This prompted me to testify as well. By doing so, I feel relieved of a burden. Nothing but to talk about it, even if they didn’t help me, made me feel better. ” Young people often come to me after the play. Some of them talk to me about their father who is in prison, saying: “What you’ve shown me, my father will never tell me.”
LV: I attended several conferences that you gave for young people. What struck me is that you’re not preachy. You give me the impression that you only want to warn them.
Jean-Marc Mahy: You’re right. I don’t want to be a preacher. After being released on parole, and meeting young people in a difficult situation, I asked myself: but what if I had known what awaited me in prison, would I really have chosen to follow the path that led me to it? The message I want to convey through my play is very simple. I tell them: become the actor of your life. I will not promise you that your life will be beautiful or easy. But you have to live it outside a prison. Because when you’re in prison, your family, all your dreams will be banned from you.
There is no morality in the play, no judgment. I try to show that the life of every human being is sacred. A man has got to make his choice to go left or right in his life and write his own story. In the audience, there are all kinds of people. There are those who come to see the play as another sensational news item, or as a kind of police film. There are those who want to be confronted with a real murderer. There are some young people who arrive with their hoods over their heads, wearing dark glasses and laughing, saying yes, yes we know prison, prison break, holidays… I tell them, if you make the choice to walk up that path, don’t tell me that I didn’t warned you about what is waiting for you. We live more and more in a culture with the gratifications of what we have today. Tomorrow is another day. We don’t want to hear any more about the past or about the future. In letters something that often comes back is: “You have shown us something that nobody has ever shown us.” It’s already something.
LV: How did you come to the idea to make a play?
Jean-Marc Mahy: I was released on parole on 16 September 2003. I started a job as a dishwasher at a private TV channel company. The third month of my release, I was invited to deliver a testimony about my life in prison to young people. From then on, I realized that I wanted to be either an educator or a social worker. I began to study to get a degree as an educator. I succeeded. From there and for almost ten years, I worked as a totally atypical educator, albeit without getting a professional status to do so. I met Jean-François Levain, an engaged teacher in secondary schools, teaching religion. For five years I worked with him on a voluntary basis in what are called the most difficult schools. Then I wanted to fly on my own wings and stand on my own. One of the nicest jobs I’ve done was guided visits to the prison museum in Tongeren for a few thousand young people. I was made for this. It was my mission.
In three years, the prison museum had welcomed close to 300,000 people. These people saw what a prison is like. They saw behind the scenes. They saw that prisons are not the five-star hotels as they often say in the media. Then the government decided to close the prison museum and transform it into a new youth prison. We launched a campaign to stop this plan. Without success. I was very disappointed. I told myself that if I could no longer show young people what a prison was, I would invite them to come to my cell.
I met Jean-Michel Van den Eeyden. I played a little role in his play “Stone”. It deals with a little event that happened in Australia. It’s about two youngsters who no longer go to school, and who are challenging each other to the point of throwing a stone from a bridge over a highway and ending up by killing someone. In the debates that followed the piece, I told my story. It challenged Jean-Michel. We decided to work together. Initially, it was not me who had to play the role. But I didn’t want anyone else to play it. Jean-Michel took up the challenge. He took the risk to do the play with me, even though many in his artistic entourage declared him insane. Initially it was planned to play it ten times. Today we are at 170 performances and there are still 30 to come next year.
LV: Is it humanly possible to plunge into your past and into prison over and over again?
Jean-Marc Mahy: When I play the piece, I am often near to break up in tears. There will always be one of those key moments in the play, where there is breaking point, where it will be hard for me to play it. At different occasions, I left the stage, crying. At the same time, I told myself, when I don’t feel those emotions any more, when I start playing the piece as if you press a button, I will stop.
Journalists who have written reviews about the play were surprised about the fact that I play my own role. They asked Jean-Michel: this is not an actor playing the role of someone else. He plays his own life over and over again. How can he do it ? Jean-Michel answered them: “he’s walking on a tightrope. There can be always something unexpected that can happen. That’s why he can do it.”
I like to act. And I learned a lot to perform as an actor. At first it was a problem to be alone on stage and play all the characters in the play. In the beginning young people were sometimes confused by it saying, damn, he is a judge, he is a cop, he is a priest, we can’t follow. I learned to improve my acting by better representing the character of the judge or the cop. Ans I improved in many other aspects of my acting.
LV: The play has been translated into Dutch. The next step is an English version. Why do you want to play in London?
Jean-Marc Mahy: There are several reasons. I don’t want to limit myself to Belgium. I mean, in all modesty, “A man standing” can become a message against isolation on a European level. Several years ago, the film and the play “The Kiss of the Spider Woman” marked me for life. Because it’s a universal theme. In current times, now that we return to the practice of torture of the Middle Ages but in a modern form, I want “A Man Standing” to become a European message against isolation. And also to show how a human being, who has been in the depths of hell, can be capable of finding the steps that lead back to life. As Martin Luther King said: “I have a dream”.
Cadre: Who is Jean-Michel Van den Eeyden?
Director, actor and educator, Jean-Michel Van den Eeyden is the artistic director of the theatre The Anchor (Charleroi, Belgium) since 2008.
As a director, he has a keen eye on the world. “Stone”, created in 2005 with the Théâtre de la Guimbarde and based on a true story, questions the place of justice in offences committed by minors and the responsibility within the scope of their actions.
In 2006, he co-founded with Yannick Duret, actress, and Olivier Hespel, playwright, the Kollectif Barakha. “Push up” by German author Roland Schimmelpfennig was the first project of the company. This creation questions the world around the workplace and the relationships between young “dynamic ” cadres, who are capable of anything in order to save their seats and to climb up the social ladder.
In 2007, Jean-Michel Van den Eeyden became responsible for workshops in different theatre high schools of the French Community in Belgium. That same year, he was invited by La Charge du Rhinocéros to collaborate in the Theatre Festival of the 4 paths in Haiti. In 2009 he created Mère Sauvage after the eponymous novel by Guy de Maupassant in an adaptation of Paul Pourveur.
In 2009, he founded the Anchor theatre. He wrote and staged “A Man Standing”, based on the story told by Jean-Marc Mahy. The play was presented at the Avignon festival in the Manufacture in 2011 and was played over 165 times to date.
In 2012, he created “Garuma” according to a text of Ad de Bondt. The play is about the epic of a street child in Brazil that becomes a football star. The play is about the differences between extreme poverty and boundless wealth. The piece was created in connection with the Moroccan company Daha Wassa and was presented in Rabat, Fez and Cassablanca as well as in various Belgian and French cities.
In 2013, he created the play “Born Black Lung” with the urban poet Mochélan. The play was presented at the Avignon Festival in 2013 at the manufacture.