They have existed in the Netherlands and Scandinavia for about forty years, and the second transition house has just opened in our country. Prisoners who are at the end of their sentence are guided towards their reintegration into society. We took a look.
While a handful of workmen are still busy plastering or checking the electricity, participant number three arrives: a forty-something in jeans with a ponytail. He drags countless cardboard boxes from the moving van outside. Books, clothes and personal items are given a place in a room overlooking a large garden.
Over the next few weeks, a maximum of thirteen participants between the ages of 18 and 60 will arrive at this just-opened transition house in Gentbrugge. “A small-scale transition house for detainees who are almost at the end of their sentence,” is how the Ministry of Justice describes it. It is the second in our country, after one opened in Mechelen four years ago.
Participants work here under the guidance of six life coaches, two strength coaches and a deputy coordinator on their reintegration into society. And that is often necessary, knows Romina Scarpone (33) from STERKhuis, the partnership for the management of transition homes in Belgium. “Those who have been in detention for years often find it difficult to return to society. Here we not only prepare them for their job or how to handle money, we also check whether we can restore their network – family or friends.”
Even the smallest actions are not easy for those who spent years in detention, emphasizes Dorien Van Humbeeck (37), coordinator of the Mechelen transition house. “Some are released after twenty years without ever having owned a smartphone. Even buying a train ticket digitally is a challenge for those who are not up to date with technology. You have to understand: in prison life stands still all this time, while outside everything goes on.” There are collaborations with the VDAB, she says, “but we also mediate with specialized partners in restorative conversations between perpetrator and victim, or draw up a payment plan for the victim.” The chances of success? Official research has not been conducted for the time being, but STERKhuis estimates that to date 70 to 80 percent have not relapsed.
Both houses work together with their colleagues from the Netherlands, where transition houses have been fulfilling their social role for about forty years. Only in 2018, under the master plan of then Minister of Justice Koen Geens (CD&V), was a first step towards transition houses taken. Successor Van Quickenborne (Open Vld) saw that it was paying off and gave the project a boost. Although it doesn’t go smoothly. Scarpone: “We are very dependent on the neighborhood and local government. We invited local residents to this house via 500 flyers for an information session. About fifty people showed up and spoke with team members from Mechelen and (former) participants. They explained that they had to work intensively in a transition house to become human again. This is how understanding was created. We were able to eliminate or refute concerns about more blue in the street, noise pollution or privacy. The most concerned neighbor even gave us a welcome plant at the opening.”
There is less understanding from politicians. Scarpone: “Other locations suitable for us were repeatedly blocked by the local government. Everyone is in favor of it, but not in your own backyard. The support base is too small. Bizarre, because the cost to society becomes much lower if we can reduce recidivism.”
It turns out that every participant has their own demons. 27-year-old J., who describes his past as “drug-related stupidity when I was 18” and lived intermittently in limited detention or electronic monitoring, knows why he is here. “I’m quite on board with everything. But I met a man who, after twenty years in prison, ended up in limited detention and threw himself under a train. He couldn’t handle that sudden change. If there had been houses like this, he might still be alive.” His own concerns? “I have been in trouble with the law since I was eighteen shit. In prison you are lived. With this concept, I understand, I am supported and I can relearn who I am and what I need to not go wrong again.” He takes the strict rules here for granted. “I applied for this myself and know what I am working towards.” He has already started an IT training course.