Behind bars with Within-Without-Walls

Jan De Cock
22 November 2017
For many years, Jan De Cock has been committed to ensuring a more humane prison system, both here and in the South.

As a conscientious objector, I left for Chile in 1987 with the intention of working on the spot with street children, glue sniffers and youngsters who were suffering from the consequences of the Pinochet dictatorship. Some of their parents were political prisoners. That’s how I took my first steps behind bars. By the time many of the youngsters in turn had been put behind bars, prison really became my biotope. For a few more years I would be wandering around the world (on a hospital ship in West Africa, with senior citizens in London, among Palestinian orphans in Jerusalem, etc.), always on the lookout for men and women who were imprisoned.  

Voluntary imprisonment

Why do we imprison people? What does this tell us about the meaning of ‘good and evil’ for us? I wanted to come even closer to prisoners’ hearts and gain in credibility so as to inform the rest of the world and inspire people to a greater duty of care. This resulted in visits to some 200 prisons and voluntary imprisonment in half of them. Besides, working three weeks for a medical project in 7 prisons in Papua New Guinea inspired me to work for the sick as well. During more than ten years I combined my passion for prisons with end-of-life care in a few hospitals in the Antwerp area.


In 2005 I spent a month in a prison in Congo. There was no water, no toilets were available, and in the course of two weeks no food had been supplied. This was the beginning of our non-profit association Within-Without-Walls. For four years we raised money, both in Belgium and elsewhere in the world, in order to build a more humane prison. No easy task, particularly when you know that the notion ‘prisoners’ is hard to sell on the social market. In the meantime the new prison in North-Kivu, a province in the  east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been opened. Not all problems have been solved, but water and toilets are now available. Once food programmes had been set up, water supply guaranteed and after our repeated requests to the authorities with regard to eliminating the delays in the legal proceedings, Within-Without-Walls has been investing in restorative justice for several years now (an approach that redefines criminal justice: instead of punishing the offender it focuses on the needs of the victim and on repairing the damage caused by a criminal offence - editor’s note).

In 2005 I spent a month in a prison in Congo. There was no water, no toilets were available, and in the course of two weeks no food had been supplied. This was the beginning of our non-profit association Within-Without-Walls.

Success story

As a dialogue and working group for offenders, victims and society we are gradually discovering that restoration makes a better world for all groups. Restoration for happiness’ sake does not refer to a naive ‘Lalaland’. These are the words of a participant to one of our workshops:

“Nearly six years ago my brother Robert was murdered. The offender was convicted to a 20 years’ imprisonment. I had never heard about victim-offender mediation until I received a letter in July 2014. On his own initiative, the offender had contacted an organization in order to start a mediation procedure. I didn’t understand right away but I was intrigued. My family was horrified and found it highly inappropriate. Nevertheless I accepted his offer. A meeting between the offender and myself was arranged in prison. The mediation service proceeded step by step and they listened attentively to my version of the facts and my expectations.

The offender was already there when I entered the bleak room. He stood up and shook my hand and that handshake reflected so much emotion and remorse that I was convinced everything would be alright eventually. Now that the spectacle that surrounded the trial was over we talked for two and a half hours. It was a calm and open discussion that we both desperately needed in order to carry on with our lives and to recover from the terrible occurrence that connected us. For me, this mediation and especially the conversation was a precious gift that prevented me from becoming bitter and resentful. I very much believe in second chances. I’m able to forgive him. This does not take away my grief. It only becomes less hard to carry.”


Jan De Cock


Jan De Cock    
Development worker, among others in Latin America and Africa. As coordinator of Within-Without-Walls he asked to be locked up voluntarily in more than 100 prisons.  


The Within-Without Walls non-profit organization (WWW) is a dialogue and working group devoted to subjects like prisoners, victims, ex-prisoners and society.


WWW is opposed to inhumane punishment, physical and psychological torture and the death penalty. By striving for a more humane prison policy, WWW seeks to contribute to tackling the problem of degrading situations in prisons around the world and wants to help look for alternatives to imprisonment. 

Human rights
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