(Photo : Jean-Marc Mahy)
Richard Haley interviews former prisoner Jean-Marc Mahy, creator of the play A Man Standing, about crime, punishment and torture.
Jean-Marc Mahy spent 19 years in prison, 3 of them in solitary confinement in Schrassig prison in Luxembourg. He was just 19 years old when he went into solitary confinement. He left prison on parole in 2003 and became a truly free man when his parole came to an end on 16 September 2013.
After leaving prison he worked briefly as a dishwasher, and then as an educator in schools and at the prison museum – now closed – in Tongeren, Belgium. Then he met theatrical director Jean-Michel Van den Eeyden, learned to act and, with Jean-Michel, developed the play A man Standing about his own experiences.
(photo : the Ancre Theater with the play A Man Standing in Edinburgh)
In August 2016 he brought the play to the Edinburgh Fringe. I interviewed him a couple of days after seeing it. A Man Standing was in the first place a solo show, but Jean-Marc had injured his foot, so it came to Edinburgh as a two-hander, with Jean-Marc on stage but with his own part largely played by Stephane Pirard.
Jean-Marc murdered two people. The first was an old man who died in hospital after 17-year old Jean-Marc knocked him out during a botched burglary in Brussels. The second was a policeman, shot by Jean-Marc – now a couple of weeks short of his 20th birthday – while attempting to re-capture Jean-Marc and two other prisoners after they escaped from prison and fled across the border to Luxembourg.
The play is partly an acknowledgement of these events and an examination, without evasion, of Jean-Marc’s relationship to his own actions. One of the aims of the play is to stop other young men following a similar path.
It is also a play about the experience and methodology of solitary confinement. Jean-Marc says: “I want A Man Standing to become a European message against isolation.”
(photo : Moazzem Begg)
A few days before interviewing Jean-Marc Mahy I chaired a discussion with former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg. 20 months of his incarceration were spent in isolation. When I asked him about it, he said simply that it had been “destructive”. Long-term isolation is outside ordinary human experience. Those subjected to it find it hard to talk about, and harder still to explain in a way that others can understand.
In A Man Standing, Jean-Marc Mahy takes you by the hand and shows you how a human being is destroyed, and how this human being survived. Others were less fortunate. Jean-Marc got to know Tony at the juvenile centre near Brussels where he was detained after the Brussels burglary, and met Tony again in Arlon prison. They became friends. Tony participated with Jean-Marc in the disastrous prison break from Arlon and the escape to Luxembourg. He didn’t survive isolation at Schrassig.
European legal systems acknowledge the grave human rights concerns raised by prolonged isolation, but have so far stopped short of banning it outright. Isolation for months or years in conditions comparable to those that Jean-Marc experienced is rare in Europe, but other forms of segregation and isolation are practised more widely. In US prisons, on the other hand, isolation has become ubiquitous.
Prolonged solitary confinement and other forms of prolonged isolation are torture. They should be excluded from the penal system as rigorously as the rack, the thumbscrew and the water-board.
(picture : Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan)
I learned about the prevalence and horror of isolation while campaigning against the extradition of “terrorism” suspects from the Britain to the US, where they were certain to be put into solitary confinement. I became particularly involved in the campaigns against the extradition of British citizens Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan. Both of them were extradited into solitary confinement in October 2012. Under the duress of this treatment they filed guilty pleas to two of the charges against them, and in doing so signed up to a statement that they were not acting under duress. US justice was in the end a little less unjust than might have been anticipated. Both men had already been held for many years without charge in British high-security prisons while fighting their extradition. They were given much shorter sentences in the US than prosecutors asked for, and are now back home in the UK as free men.
The refusal of the European Court of Human Rights to block the extradition of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan to solitary confinement set a worrying precedent, even though the judgement was ring-fenced by a dirty legal concept holding that prison conditions that would be unacceptable in a state bound by the European Convention on Human Rights are not necessarily a bar to extradition or deportation to a country not so bound.
The heightened emotions surrounding terrorist incidents, the racism created by the ‘war on terror’, the diplomatic chicanery engaged in by governments fighting it, and the race to the human rights bottom between governments competing for precedence in the fight all create a risk that the use of solitary confinement will increase in Europe.
The British government recently announced plans to create special units within high-security prisons for “extremist” convicts, supposedly to counter the risk that they will “radicalise” other prisoners. At the end of his interview with me, Jean-Marc Mahy drew attention to the unprecedented conditions in which Salah Abdeslam, arrested in Belgium in connection with the 2015 Paris attacks and then transferred to France, is being held.
My interview with Jean-Marc Mahy would not have been possible without Philip Crispin, who acted as our interpreter. Philip is a drama lecturer at Hull university and worked with Jean-Marc throughout the Edinburgh run of A Man Standing.
(Scene from the play A Man Standing)
The background to the play is explored in a 2013 interview of Jean-Marc by Belgian prison activist Luk Vervaet. I tried to make my interview a continuation of the conversation begun by Jean-Marc and Luk.
“At the age of 16 I had already been arrested for breaking up a school and for committing petty thefts. But nothing very serious until then… Two friends invited me to join them for a burglary and rob an old man. They had done it several times before. For me, it would be my first time. The old man wasn’t supposed to be at home. But he was. He recognized one of my accomplices and everything turned wrong. He wanted to call the police, wanted to take his rifle from the wall. We panicked and I knocked him out.”
Jean-Marc Mahy, interview, 2013
Richard Haley: Your story began back in 1984, at the age of 17. You took part in a burglary which turned out badly. The old man who lived there was present when you hadn’t expected it, you hit him on the head and he died later in hospital. While you were awaiting trial for that you were detained at a children’s centre.
Jean-Marc Mahy: I was detained in a juvenile detention centre for six months. Then the judge said: “I don’t want to have to do with you any more. You’re going to be tried by an adult court.”
RH: In an earlier interview you said that in the juvenile centre you “found a fairly balanced life.”
Jean-Marc Mahy: Absolutely.
RH: Then after you were transferred to an adult prison you made your first suicide attempt.
Philip Crispin: Not his first, because he made a couple when he was younger.
Richard Haley: So what had changed between the balanced life in the juvenile centre and the adult prison that pushed you to attempt suicide?
Jean-Marc Mahy: In the juvenile centre we were always busy. We had cookery classes in the morning. In the afternoon we did sport and we spoke with teachers, social workers and the psychologist. In prison you were banged up 23 hours out of 24 and there was nobody there any more for us. That was the big difference.
“On 21 November 1986, I was sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment. The two others to 10 and 12 years. I was in a rage.”
Jean-Marc Mahy, interview, 2013
RH: Two years on from the burglary, you were in a different prison and you escaped with two other prisoners across the border into Luxembourg. When two policemen tried to arrest the three of you in a pub, there was a struggle, you took the gun from one of the policemen. Two shots were fired at a policeman.
Jean-Marc Mahy: There’s a big difference between a pistol where you fire and the casing comes out and a revolver where the bullet goes out and the casing remains in. So when the first shot was fired, if I had a pistol I would have seen the casing come out of the gun. When I turned round and I saw the other policeman aiming at me and it looked like he was going to kill me, a second shot was fired.
“Our third man, who used to rebel against the police when he was drunk, grabbed his knife and threw himself on one of the two policemen. If this hadn’t happened, we would simply have been arrested. He yelled at me to take the weapon of the other policeman, which I did within a second. I had never used a gun or shot someone, but this time I did and I shot twice. It’s strange what happens at such moments.”
Jean-Marc Mahy, interview, 2013
In the scene in the play 10 seconds are missing. There is a centre for criminology – the most reputed in Europe – at Weisbaden. The psychologist at Weisbaden explained when you are angry your heart beat goes up. These specialists speak of animal adrenalin. I’ll explain this in a very simple way.
I love wildlife documentaries. Once I saw a lioness. She caught an antelope. She caught it round the neck and the antelope fell to the ground. At the moment when she was sure the antelope was dead, she removed her mouth from the neck. In fact, the antelope sped off.
My body put itself into a type of amnesia. I remained in the animal adrenalin state. I wasn’t aware of what was going on. It was only when I came out into the street a few seconds later that I became aware of what was going on.
The trigger pressure needed to fire the revolver I had in my hand was 5 kilograms. The policeman [from whom Jean-Marc had taken the gun] was almost 2 metres tall and weighed 100 kilograms. If I’d been in a normal state I could never have pulled the trigger, because it needed a force of five kilograms. But the animal adrenalin had given me extraordinary strength, provoked by fear. After the first shot, the chamber of the revolver turned ready for the next shot. When I found myself face to face with the other policeman who was aiming at me, my strength was so elevated that I pulled twice on the trigger and it wasn’t the second bullet that came out, but the third. But I never had any sensation that I had fired. It was the experts at Weisbaden who established what had happened.
They provided a report to the judge. First I was charged with assassination. When you assassinate someone, it’s pre-meditated. When the judge read the report, he changed the charge to murder. [ Luxembourg, like France, distinguishes between ‘meurtre’ – intentional killing – and the even more serious offence of ‘assassinat’ – killing with premeditation. There is also a lesser offence of 'homicide involontaire’ - manslaughter.].
RH: After you were arrested, you were immediately put into solitary confinement?
Jean-Marc Mahy: First, I spent ten hours being questioned at the commissariat. I was beaten. After that, bang, the cell door was locked.
“When I arrived into that prison, the isolation section of the prison had only opened for six months. They had constructed it for a gang called “The Family.” A gang who had killed many people. For me, the reason why they immediately put me there, was because they thought I wasn’t going to survive this treatment.”
Jean-Marc Mahy, interview, 2013
RH: What effect did being in solitary confinement have on your ability to prepare for your trial?
Jean-Marc Mahy: There was pressure. There were 5 searches of my cell every day. I call that first year the year of provocation. They were pushing me to react. By the second year I was broken. They would say “stand up, sit down”, and I would just do it. I know the system of isolation in the US very well. It’s well documented. All this has been thought about by those who are inflicting it. The aim of the provocation is to break the prisoner. When I speak of humiliation, I’m going to give some clear examples.
I had the right to two showers every week. I never met any other prisoner. They locked me in the shower. That could last for five minutes or it could be six hours, but I wouldn’t know what it was going to be. The greatest humiliation was the strip searches and anal examinations. Jean-Marc stands up and mimes the examinations. They would do this very frequently. There was no justification. It was impossible for me to take anything because they were always around. I was raped twice with a finger up the arse.
That was the greatest humiliation. Another type of humiliation was once a week they would change all my clothes. I’d take everything off and I’d have to stand naked in the corridor. Just as in other prisons, there would be groups of visitors – criminologists, psychologists – I call it the safari. Twice I found myself stark naked in the corridor, and a group of people walked by and stared at me. Another form of humiliation that was very harsh: I started to see a psychiatrist. The problem was that I was in a room with the psychiatrist but there were five prison guards behind me in the same room. I wasn’t free to say what I wanted.
The humiliation of visits was also very hard. It’s shown very well in the play. There’s a cell divided into two. That’s their office. Jean-Marc is arranging objects – my notebook, my phone – on the table. Here’s the square I went into, here’s the glass pane that separates us and the visitor is here. We each have a microphone. But here’s their office. Along the whole length of the cell there’s a glass panel. You can see them behind it, and they’re listening and watching us.
Another type of humiliation that was very, very hard was that they read my mail before I did. They read every letter before me. Sometimes they would joke. They’d read the letter in front of me and make comments. If it was from my mother, they’d say: “how can anyone love you?” Voilà, c’est ça.
Philip Crispin: Were they sadists?
Jean-Marc Mahy: Yes
RH: When your case came to trial, you’d already been suffering this treatment. Do you think you were in a good state of mind to respond rationally to the legal process?
Jean-Marc Mahy: I was in a very good mental state. Six months before the trial – I think this saved my life – a prison visitor, a woman, came to see me. She came once every two months for two hours and we spoke of everything but prison. We spoke of theatre, she brought me books – L’Étranger by Camus – we spoke of anything outside. She encouraged me to be strong for the trial, to prepare myself.
(photo : filming the play A Man Standing for the film Vers une inconditionnelle liberté by Vartan Ohanian and Serge Challon)
I knew that I would be sentenced to perpétuité. It’s exactly as it’s explained in the play, the fact of seeing the policeman’s little daughter in court. I accepted the sentence they were going to impose. The only thing that I don’t accept today is that the trial lasted five hours. Two hours on Tuesday 5 December, three hours on Wednesday 6 December, then on the 19th they passed sentence. I didn’t understand at first. They spoke in Luxembourgish and I only spoke French. It was only when I got back to prison that the sadists explained what the life sentence meant.
I wanted to appeal, because it wasn’t right that this should all have been decided in five hours. They threatened that if I appealed I’d be banged up in solitary for another 18 months. They played on my feelings about Tony. I was afraid that if I appealed Tony would die because of me. He had already gone mad.
RH: In the play it’s said that you were sentenced to perpétuité with forced labour. What does ‘forced labour’ mean? It seems incompatible with solitary confinement.
Jean-Marc Mahy: In fact, forced labour doesn’t exist.
I’d been given 18 years in Belgium. Perpétuité in Luxembourg was 33 years. That’s 51 years. A process of destruction and de-humanisation. The first year: provocation. The second year: humiliate and break you. The third year: you no longer exist. I was capable of sleeping for 18 hours a day. It often happened that for seven days in succession they didn’t even bother opening my cell door. They didn’t even look to see if I was still alive. They just put my food through the hatch three times a day.
“We didn’t want to show beatings or physical abuse in prison. We wanted to show in an hour and a half the institutional violence that can be put upon a human being. I believe this kind of violence can kill a person or transform him into a human bomb.”
Jean-Marc Mahy, interview, 2013
It’s your rhythm against the rhythm of isolation. Isolation establishes a pattern in your body and you have to go with it. I quote from Ulrike Meinhof, on sensory deprivation, in the play because I felt exactly the same sensations as she did.
I met my prison visitor – the women I talked about earlier – twenty-five years later. She said that when she first came to see me I no longer knew how to speak. I was searching for words. Every one of my gestures was slow. When I left my cell, my head was spinning. In the last year, you feel that they are going to kill you. Ça va.
I start to ask about an Amnesty International report. Jean-Marc is breaking down. He goes out of the room into the fresh air for a few minutes. Then we continue the interview.
RH: People I’ve met before who have experienced solitary confinement or other kinds of torture usually either don’t talk about it in public, or talk about it in a very restricted or distant way.
That’s why my struggle, your struggle and the struggle of Luk Vervaet, have to be very clear. Out of 10 human beings, in these conditions there’s only one who will come out in a way that they’ve grown. I repeat, what saved my life was the radio, to hear voices, to have life in your cell. And the books that I read! Not the crap that they gave me, but the great books. Maximilian Kolbe, Nelson Mandela, Charrière, Tazmamart by Ahmed Marzouki. Those people were at the bottom of a hole and managed to spring out of it thanks to their moral strength.
The play is paradoxical. If I hadn’t been three years in solitary, I would never have changed. It’s terrible to say that.
Unfortunately, there are those like Tony who go mad. That’s the intention. Tony didn’t know where he was. Time no longer moved forward. I often say, in a normal prison time advances three times more slowly than in freedom. But in supermax, time advances six times more slowly. I saw people who after 3 months in solitary could no longer speak. You have among those individuals, people who will come out even more violent.
“Everything was done to dehumanize you and to destroy you. For Tony, my accomplice, who was also there, they succeeded. He, who could neither read or write, became literally crazy after 14 months.”
Jean-Marc Mahy, interview, 2013
What’s wonderful here in Scotland is that they’ve kept high-security prisons but they’ve established a team around violent individuals. So I’ll return to this beautiful expression: “Violence is the sound of suffering that isn’t heard.” Those educators and psychologists can hear the suffering and find a means of channelling it. That’s my role as an educator with young people. Instead of reacting physically they can channel their violence into sport, football, running, arts, writing, sculpture. This education is to enable them to find the words to express their pain.
RH: It’s interesting that you mention the very restricted use made of isolation in Scottish prisons. But on the other hand, the rate of imprisonment in Scotland at present is higher than in Luxembourg and Belgium.
Jean-Marc Mahy: Be careful, because there are those who are given forty-year sentences and they never come out of prison. In Belgium you can get a life sentence and then they can add on another twenty years so it doesn’t seem like you’re ever going to come out.
RH: One of our issues in Scotland is, there was a report earlier this year showing there are quite widespread mental health problems in Scottish prisons and there’s a tendency for people who are already quite vulnerable to be sent to prison.
Jean-Marc Mahy: Exactly. I agree.
RH: Returning to your play: you perform that play night after night. How does that affect your life?
“When I play the piece, I am often near to break up in tears. There will always be one of those key moments in the play, where there is breaking point, where it will be hard for me to play it. At different occasions, I left the stage, crying.”
Jean-Marc Mahy, interview, 2013
Jean-Marc Mahy: I’ve performed this play two hundred times, alone on stage, and it’s true that psychologically at particular moments, as I’ve played it a lot, I’ve had difficulty in extricating myself from the play. Nothing is chance in life. I broke my foot and Stephane came to perform the play with me. He was in the cell. But now, after two years of playing together, I’m going to play it again all alone. I’ve not often broken down like this in an interview. I feel mentally strong enough to perform the play again. When I play it all alone it’s my life. When I trace the perimeter of the cell I see the wall. Stephane never does.
RH: After you came out of isolation, while you were still in prison, you filed a complaint in court about your treatment. Can you tell me about that?
(Photo : Jean-Marc Mahy at Amnesty International in London in 2015)
Jean-Marc Mahy: When I left solitary on 27 March 1990 it took me a lot of time to regain physical sensations. I had to re-learn how to walk. The first true emotional shock that I lived through was on the 28th March, the day after I came out of solitary. I found myself in an immense corridor. Hundreds of prisoners came up to shake my hand. I said to myself: I’ve come out alive. I’ve seen people howl, shout, become mad. I’ve seen people beaten. These sounds and voices are still in my head. I said to myself: I’ve got to denounce this. It’s not right. I entered into the most militant period of my life and I brought this to the attention of Amnesty International. They spoke of me in their 1992 report. They saved my life.
I’d launched a press campaign that reached Germany, Luxembourg, Italy, Spain, Belgium. They’d even created a support group in Luxembourg. For the two years I remained in Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, every time the guards from Block E saw me, they made me understand that if I went back to Block E, they would hang me.
I was the first to bring a complaint based on Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the prohibition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Fourteen other prisoners then complained as well. The authorities in the Grand Duchy were very frightened. The Grand Duchy is seen within Europe as a place where people live well. For them, a court case was a catastrophe. I repeat, nothing in life is chance. At that time a European law was voted on allowing a foreign prisoner to serve their sentence in their own country [the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Person, ratified by Belgium in 1990] on three conditions. First, that the country of origin – Belgium, for me – accepts the person, which they didn’t want to do at all. Secondly, Luxembourg had to accept that I would go back to Belgium. They could hardly wait! And thirdly, if those conditions were met, I could say no. But I said yes. I went back on 10 February 1992.
RH: Did your transfer to Belgium have the effect of stopping the legal proceedings about your solitary confinement?
Jean-Marc Mahy: Yes. After I went back to Belgium the other prisoners were put under pressure and they dropped the complaint. It never went to court. But after another two years they closed Block E. They turned it into a place for the detention of sans papiers, and set up another high security facility elsewhere in the Grand Duchy. I don’t know what the conditions there are like.
After I left the hell of high-security jail, I entered the other hell of heroin. What saved me was education. I managed to stop the drug while I was in prison.
RH: Do you think policies on isolation are changing in Europe? Is there progress, or is it the opposite?
Jean-Marc Mahy: In Scandinavian countries there’s been real progress. For example, in Finland there were 58 prisons at the end of the seventies. Now there are 20, and 11 of them are semi-open. So there are countries that have changed direction. But I think that because of everything that’s happened in connection with terrorism, there are going to be more and more supermax prisons. There’s going to be one in Belgium very soon. So if we take the example of Salah Abdeslam – the terrorist who was in Paris who they’ve caught in Belgium – he’s in the biggest prison in Europe, Fleury-Mérogis in France. There, they have a new form of human castration where they can watch you 24 hours a day on cameras. I don’t know how a human being can hold out against that. Being locked up, facing yourself 24 hours a day, is terrible in itself. But now you’ve got voyeurs, able to watch you all the time. I think this is an experiment, like the well-known experiment at Stanford University in the 1970s where they got people to give one electric shocks. That went very badly. I saw an American documentary on solitary confinement. There was a doctor – a researcher – who explained: Every human being has one part of their brain that unleashes suffering. That part of the brain is triggered if I stab myself. The American researchers said that after a few years of isolation, the same part of the brain that unleashes physical suffering, triggers psychological suffering. Voilà.