What Brussels is doing to integrate former prison inmates back into society

In the 2017 Oscar®-nominated documentary, Knife Skills, director Thomas Lennon portrays the lives of men and women who, after years of forced seclusion and strict sentencing, come out into the world to face perhaps the toughest of all acts of redemption: having a new life in society, staying afloat. In the film, Lennon stretches every second of the forty-minute long documentary to show the doubts and anxieties of these former inmates, also the will power needed to learn how to build a World-class French restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. In two months. That’s how long the training takes.

“It’s scary to be locked up for however many years the judge deems necessary. But even scarier than prison life is post-prison life,” someone says in the film. “Finding a job, keeping yourself afloat is incredibly difficult with a criminal record. Potential employers fear the worst.”



Edwins Restaurant & Institute is a success story of what can be done to improve the lives of a community in one of Cleveland’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. A question that can be raised while reading this article is, And what about Belgium, what about Brussels?

To explore that question I meet with Patrick De Clerck, a Belgian composer and music entrepreneur, at Walvis Cafe, which stands at the corner of Rue Dansaert and Rue de Flandre, two of the most eclectic and lively streets in the city. Wearing a deep green waistcoat and short cropped hair he enters the cafe with the poise of a firefighter who’s been blazed by a thousand fires and withstood the battle.

“I just came back from a trip in Asia,” he says, and sits down at the table. “Singapore, Korea, China. I was asked to design a tour for the Young Symphony Orchestra of Russia. Top musicians all of them.”


Patrick De Clerck
Patrick De Clerck – Copyright: Alexei Molchanovsky


After the waiter has taken our order and left, I ask him about Escapades, a project he started about five years ago to empower some of the people most neglected in society: those living in psychiatric institutions, homeless shelters, rehabilitation centers, and prisons. How did it all start?

“Let me start from the beginning,” he says. “In Western Europe, high culture is not doing well. If you are successful you may appeal to 4% instead of 2% of the population, nearly of them older people. Why? I really spent a lot of time thinking about this. The attitude of some of my colleagues was, ‘You have to be educated to enjoy high culture,’ which is something I never agreed with. I thought, If I manage to spark the interest of those who don’t even know who Bach or Mozart was, then I can prove that the potential is much larger than we think.”

Fully funded by the Brussels Region, Escapades is a project in which, for 6 months, people are trained in how to organize a classical music concert. All the steps. They are exposed to the full repertoire of music spanning from renaissance and baroque, to contemporary composers. They choose the musicians, they make the communication plan and select the location. They are empowered to do what they deem best for the performance.

The next concert will take place on Friday, October 5th, at Le Foyer, in Molenbeek, and it has been organized by inmates from the Forest prison.



“I’ve been doing this for the past five years and worked with about ten different institutions. I cannot begin to tell you how much my perspectives have broadened.” He looks out the window and the sound of a tram passing by reaches us from a distance. He sips his tea and pauses. His face bears the signs of an eternal explorer. “At the prison in Forest, for example, the inmates say to me, ‘We want to make a rap on the music of Alfred Schnittke.’ You know Schnittke, the Russian composer. At first I was puzzled but when they really pushed me to give them an answer, I couldn’t. They challenged my views, which was so refreshing and useful to me. They chose musicians who are joyful, who enjoy playing. When they listen to a recording or a CD, they can feel who is joyful or not. It’s fascinating. And these are the kinds of experiences that will stay with me.”

Patrick De Clerck’s involvement with Escapades is coming to an end but the path has been laid out. “I wrote a manual about this learning program. It’s in French, English and Dutch. And the idea is being picked up in other places. In Russia, to give you an example. They are using this very manual.”

Not everyone in the institutions could join the project. A questionnaire had to be filled out for each potential participant to determine safety levels, at which stage of their sentence they were, etc. Yet some of the results have been remarkable. Inmates have been released earlier from prison after having shown that they can be responsible for their own lives. “In jail many of them get lazy, they don’t want to do anything because they are deprived of any possibility of choice. This program was designed to give them an environment where they can develop self-confidence. If you give them power to choose, to create, they spring into action.”

On Tuesday, October 2nd, in the Agora of Bozar Centre for Fine Arts, novelist Yasmina Khadra talked about the roots of radicalism and raised the question: What if society could integrate and persuade those marginalized to take constructive action, instead of letting them being swept by the voices of fanaticism?

Before I finish my notes, Patrick De Clerck mentions that Escapades continues to offer pleasant surprises. Some participants in the Escapades project will soon join an internship program at Bozar where they will join one of the many teams involved in the production and curation of art. “There will be a light technician, one in charge of festival production, another greeting the audience. And this is all from a project that started five years ago. Can you imagine all the possibilities?”