It was early March 2014 and the Beveren prison, in northern Belgium, was set to open soon. In a final effort to test out its “ultra-modern” facility, the management had invited professionals from the criminal justice system as well as journalists and prison staff to be locked up for the weekend. Photographer Sébastien Van Malleghem was there too. Everyone had a role to play. Some simulated cardiac arrests, suicides or fights in their cells, others had to attack wardens to see how they would react. Despite the claustrophobic, clinical environment, Van Malleghem smiled at the absurdity of it all. The photographer was more than two years into his “Prisons” project, an unflinching look at the incarceration system in Belgium and it was the first time he was seeing a judge scrub the prison floor. In 2013, Van Malleghem had published “Police,” a book that documented the work of law officers throughout the country. Now, he was looking at where the people they arrested were sent. “I wanted to know the conditions of their incarceration,” he says, “in the 21st century and at the heart of Europe.” After an investigation that lasted more than three years, Van Malleghem is now raising funds to publish “Prisons” this summer. He joined us from a suburb of Brussels.
Roads & Kingdoms: Tell me about your first time inside a prison.
Sébastien Van Malleghem: It was in 2011, in February or March, and it was the prison of Nivelles in the south of Belgium. I didn’t have much apprehension because I hadn’t done a lot of research before going inside. I had read one philosophy book that talked about imprisonment, but I hadn’t filled my brain with images and people and stories. I wanted to be a blank slate so that I could really photograph what I was feeling. The first feeling I had was the one of entering an administrative world. There are doors and fences everywhere, and to get through each one you have to press buttons. There are cameras looking at you, and you just assume there’s someone on the other side. You feel this confinement from the very beginning. Everything is cold, it’s all narrow hallways and straight lines. Your bag is checked, you’re asked why you’re here, the message wasn’t really passed around so you have to explain the project over and over. When I finally got inside, I wasn’t really intimidated, I just saw this as my job and told myself: you’re here, now you have to be sincere.