[This article was published in CircusMagazine #46 – March 2016]
[Author: Laura Van Bouchout – Translation: Craig Weston – Illustration: Steven Van Hasten]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
The re-integration of inmates is a complex and many-headed monster. Two years ago a support prison in Leuven began with a weekly circus course. Men in pre-trial custody learning how to carry and trust one another in pyramids, and prisoners avidly juggling away their stress.
BEEP. The red lamp on the frame of the metal detector begins to flash. A guard sits up straight in her chair. She looks to the screen and points with her index finger to Rika’s upper body. “Ah, is it my bra… again?” Rika Taeymans (58) can only laugh. “It goes off every time!” Since 2013 the workshop organization Cirkus in Beweging have been running weekly courses in the support prison of Leuven. The initiative came from De Rode Antraciet, an association which organizes group lessons in sport and culture in all the prisons of Flanders and Brussels. Ine Melis – sport officer at Leuven Help – (as the prison is known) explains: “For us each person is part of society, even those who are prisoners. Through our courses we hope to stimulate maximum interaction between the detainees and the outside world. Our activities bring oxygen in, and a chance for the stories inside these walls to find their way out to the world beyond them. Detainees are also given a chance to engage as people, to make and develop social connections.” Enter – Rika Taeymans. She is the founder of Cirkus in Beweging and has been active as a circus teacher for the past thirty years. Every friday she takes on the role of energetic and colorful insurgent in the predictable and limited daily activity of Leuven Help. At least if the clasps of her brassiere will co-operate.
Let the circus begin
Her brassiere gets a waiver and Taeymans’ bike bag rolls through the scanner, stuffed with juggling balls, clubs and rings. Today on the schedule: a short warm-up, some pyramids and a lot of juggling. A succession of five steel doors whoosh open. Just as many guards are greeted with handshakes. And then, we are in. You can feel it. Hear it. Smell it. This is where freedom ends. Every sound echoes coldly against the hard tile floor. The tang of male sweat and steel hangs in the air. The lack of daylight weighs on the morale, you don’t want to be here any longer than you have to. “We have to wait here,” explains Taeymans. “They are still in the middle of inspections”. She gestures to an assistant guard, moving along the cells, ticking off the tally, one by one.
Tally completed, and a new shift of guards take their posts. The intercom crackles. ‘RELEASE: CIRCUS.’ Taeymans smiles. “Yeah, the first time you hear that, you get the impression that a herd of horses is just about to be set free.” A guard walks down the hall with a list of participants, and lets each of those who signed up for circus lessons out of their cells. Ine: “The offer of circus for the inmates took some time to settle in. Also for the guards. One of them invariably shouting out over the intercom, his articulation painfully exaggerated: ‘Let the Circus Begin!’ You can imagine that most of the adult men here were not particularly eager to answer the call.” The turning point was a European circus project last summer. For an entire week twelve foreign circus artists worked on a performance with twelve inmates. Melis: “That was fantastic. The public found it hard to tell who was who. From then on there was a new-found respect for circus around here, from the guards as well as from the prisoners.”
One by one five participants trickle in. “Where’s Nordin?” asks Taeymans. It turns out he has been transferred. Two of the other regulars don’t show, they have been given permission to begin working. Melis: “for a small salary prisoners can help out in the kitchen, the laundry room, or as menial laborer for external firms. With the bit of money they earn they can treat themselves to cola, cigarettes, telephones or extra channels on the television.”
The door of the space slams shut, Taeymans is alone now with her five students. There is no security and the cameras haven’t been installed yet. There is only one red alarm button. Taeymans: “Does it feel unsafe? Naah. We have a lot of fun. Last week we were missing someone small for the top of the pyramid. One of the participants — a huge guy — just threw me up there. As if it was nothing! We really died laughing. I was glad that at that point nobody was following us on a screen somewhere. I don’t like the feeling of being ‘watched’”.
It has to be said: the five don’t feel the least bit threatening. The oldest one is fifty-four, the youngest twenty-eight. There is a wedding ring on most of the hands. It also helps that they’re wearing their own clothes. If you could forget the location, you would just see a friendly father figure with a beer belly and socks pulled up too high. An unshaven guy at the pool in shorts and slippers. A computer nerd who rarely sees the light of day. And a hip twenty-something in white Birkenstocks. Only one pair of gray prison trousers gives the situation away, complete with heavily stitched and mended seat of the pants. Bogdan shakes Taeymans’ hand. “How are you doing?” she asks. With an emotional gesture he waves away the question and stares sullenly at the floor. He’s been here for four months now, and he guesses he’ll be here for at least another two. Today it’s really gotten to him. His wife claims to have sent him some money, but it doesn’t seem to have arrived.
Count to ten
The lesson begins: stretching together. With each exercise Taeymans asks someone to count to ten in their own language. The result is a waterfall of Chinese, Macedonian, Arabic and Sarnami. In the meantime a loud moaning ensues. Ooo. Ouch, my back. Half of them are still very stiff from yesterday’s Crossfit session. There is lots of relaxed laughter. Easy contact games — back to back — lead to the building of three-man pyramids.
I asked her beforehand if Taeymans consciously avoids certain things in her lessons. “As little as possible. In acrobatics if you start to think like that there’s soon nothing left you can do. It always involves a healthy portion of pushing and pulling, and every exercise looks like some kind of sexual position. So I don’t pay any attention to any of that.” She does try to adapt the content of the lessons to the needs of the group. “Last week an Egyptian man told me he was very frightened, and so I added an exercise of deep breathing from the stomach into the lesson.” Today Admir is obviously suffering from too much energy, every free moment he is doing push-ups in the corner. There is some giggling going on. He will sleep well tonight. Taeymans reacts to the situation and makes a pyramid with everyone in the plank position. And Admir is allowed to be on the very top. Carefully, tentatively he offers up his legs behind him, until all his weight is being supported by his arms. His regard is one of complete concentration. His upper body trembles from the exertion. I’m waiting. And then it comes: an almost undetectable, proud smile. The pleasure of getting it right for the very first time, of surprising yourself.
But the main reason they all signed up for this course is, in the end, to juggle! “Juggling?” hinted Jack a number of times, at the first sign of an empty moment. With childlike enthusiasm the five adult men try to keep their balls in the air. Some are charmingly clumsy, some have a bit of control. Each of them with chins up and mouths open. It’s with a laugh that fallen balls get retrieved, not a sign of frustration. Faisel watches how Wang keeps his three balls in the air. “Hola, he can already do it, look! First time?” No. “In China everyone learns how to juggle in school, poor kids with talent are sent to boarding school and get a chance to become circus artists.” Jack also seems to have the knack. As drummer, he is used to head and hands working together. Patiently he practices with his partner juggling ‘siamese’, arm in arm.
In the photo with a tiger
The hope is that these sorts of activities function as stepping stones towards the prisoner’s social re-integration. But Ine Melis chooses to downplay the expectations. “Many governments and organizations are all too happy to embrace sport as the way towards huge advances in the re-integration process. But there is no real proof yet that it works. We have to be careful not to bullshit anyone. There are so many factors that influence that process. Does an hour of sport just involve lifting some weights? Or is there a progression wherein the men take on more and more responsibility for the organization?” Taking part in an activity is no guarantee that it will be any easier for an inmate to find a job on the outside. “That requires much more specific work and attention to the peculiar needs of each individual inmate. Does someone suffer from a lack of confidence, or rather from too much? For me sport offers, to begin with, a chance to relax. A chance to look at things differently. And hopefully, in the best of cases, it offers something a bit more.”
What do the participants think? I ask them in the last five minutes of the lesson. “It just makes me smile,” says Fahic with a grin. Neither does it take Bogdan long to respond. “I say yes to everything. And circus immediately had a positive ring to it. As a kid, I loved going to the circus with my mother, I still have a photo of me with a tiger.” Of all the group activities circus offers the best chance for a good laugh. But initially, Wang found the opportunity to do circus a strange one. “What’s the point in that, I thought, clowning around in prison? In the meantime I have come to realize that you can approach circus as a sport. And in China we believe that physical exertion is an ideal cure for mental strain. Just as singing can help against stress.”
Jack nods in agreement. “An hour ago I lay in my cell, stressing out. Now I feel good. It’s like a breath of fresh air.” What pleases him the most is to note the progress he is making from week to week. “I am only capable of maybe five percent of what’s possible with juggling balls. That’s a nice thought.” Do they think they will take any of this with them once they’re out? Yes, in fact. Especially the fathers in the group fantasize about this a lot. The lessons are giving them a chance to take something positive back home with them. Bogdan: “I am really looking forward to showing my tricks to my daughter back in Slovenia, and clowning around for her.” Also Jack looks forward to that, in the Netherlands there is a newborn baby and a five year old child waiting for him. “But I also conduct a marching band of about twenty young guys. Seems like it could be fun to teach them to juggle, maybe with their drumsticks. A little something extra to add to our show.” The most infected seems to be Wang: “If I could manage to find a job around Leuven, I would love to sign up for the evening classes of Cirkus in Beweging.” Time is just about up but the group has a few more questions. “Rika, could we also learn some magic tricks?” asks Wang. Faisel has seen a film of someone juggling chainsaws. And via via he knows someone who can juggle eight clubs. “Clubs? You sure it wasn’t balls?” checks Taymans. “Eight clubs is very very difficult.” “No no. Clubs, for sure!”
Show us a trick, Johnny
Those who want to practice in their cells, can take balls out of the prison library. You have to see Johnny for that. If he is not in his cell, he is working behind the library desk. The stiff stand-up collar of his light blue polo shirt and tattooed arms are likely evidence of a generous dose of testosterone. But he laughs shyly. According to Jimmy, one of the guards, Johnny is a natural with the balls. “C’mon, show us a trick Johnny.” Without a kick Johnny pulls three balls out from under a stack of papers, and launches them in the air with ease. “You see, he’s really good, heh. And he’s only had four lessons. Keep practicing, ok man?” “Yeah,” mumbles Johnny dryly. “It’s not like I have anything better to do.” A lot of thought went into the choice for juggling balls. Ine: “It’s clear that you could never take something like a skipping rope back to your cell. And we also wanted to avoid things you could pry open somehow. We are all about giving help and service to the inmates, but justice is still in charge of safety. We still need official approval for all the choices we make. They let us know what is possible and what is not.”
An hour against the stress
With a broad smile Taeymans returns, walking back through all the doors, and takes her coat out of the locker. “It is hard for me to put my finger on the reasons why, but I just love giving these lessons. I always come out in a good mood. I have a lot of fun myself. Maybe because I have the feeling they really get something out of it. Because I manage to get them to laugh.” Doesn’t she ever wonder just what brought her students here in the first place? “No. I don’t have that information about any of them, and I don’t want it either. You can’t think about that. I am not their social worker. I treat them as people, not as prisoners, and they feel that. I just help them forget for a while where they are, and try to give a positive experience to men who are in a truly stressful situation. Taking away their stress for an hour, there is really nothing so special about that.”
Would she choose an hour’s lesson in a prison over one at a company party? “Oh yes. Without a doubt. It is lovely to come in contact with so many different people. Once an older man came up to me. He had always been a farmer. It took him forever, with much frustration, before he could manage to actually do something, but he kept coming and he kept at it. That is beautiful.” And once in a while you manage to get someone hooked. “Last year I had an architect in the lessons. I explained a bit to him about side swap patterns in juggling, and made the link with mathematics. He went on to look up all kinds of information about it on his own.”
Once in a while Taeymans gets a chance to make pyramids with inmates and their children, during visiting hours. “Those lessons take place in the middle of a busy visiting room. Right in front of the only drinks dispenser. Really not easy circumstances. The first time there was an old guard sitting quietly in his chair by the door, just watching. ‘Now that’s something I never saw before,’ he said afterwards. ‘In all my years here. Something so beautiful.’” Taeymans tears up as she tells the story. “You know, maybe that’s the most difficult thing about this, the fact you can’t really share it with anyone else. You can tell all the stories you want, but it is very difficult to even imagine what it is like. You have to be here to see just how beautiful it is.”
The names of the inmates have been changed, for reasons of privacy.