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At home behind bars

Text: Cosima Bas

On my way to school I walk past a line of visitors on my way to the large, wooden gate. They’re mainly women and children. Every time a kind of guilt comes over me whenever I walk straight past them. They’re here for a different reason than I am. They are here to visit family members and loved ones who are in prison; I’m coming home.

Je suis la fille de monsieur Bas’, I say when I buzz the intercom. The heavy doors open and I walk past the guards. ‘One of the daughters of the warden’, they whisper to one another. I greet them while passing through the metal detectors. Once I reach the courtyard, I near my father’s office to get the key to our home. No other place got me closer to the prisoner-filled cells than his office. Every time I went there, I felt a certain tension. The official residency where I lived the first twelve years of my life was a mere few walls removed from some of the most dangerous people known to our society. The main entrance to our house wasn’t the only entrance. Towards the end of the imposing prison walls there was a small, almost unnoticeable, wooden gate to our garden. When I was old enough, I got my own set of keys. I was terrified of losing those, I can still hear my father say ‘Be very careful with these, if you lose them I have to change all the locks of the prison’. The responsibility I carried was enormous. I had the key to freedom in my hands.

In school I was quickly dubbed ‘the girl who lived in the prison’. It was the most interesting fact I could think of about myself and people always seemed impressed. I was proud of it as a child, it made me unique. Whenever friends came over to play, they were baffled by the prison. It was a magical place for everyone who came by it, and so it was for me as well. Our ivy-covered house with towers and high walls seemed like a castle and our large garden its personal fairytale forest. We had trees that bore fruit, a little vegetable patch, a greenhouse, rose bushes, a pen for chickens and rabbits. It was the most quiet and green place I knew, which says a lot since it’s in the middle of a prison in the city. My sister and I often pretended we were princesses. We would put on brightly-colored ballgowns and run through the garden bare-footed. We would pick apples or cherries or cut off rhubarb stems to dip in sugar for a snack later. In the back of the garden was the most wobbly, rusty rocking chair which came off the ground a little every time I swung my legs up too high. Sometimes some men would work in the garden. I remember one day my dad told me those men were prisoners who were doing chores in hope of shortening their sentences. I found the idea fascinating, but often caught myself being a little scared as well. Every time I saw one of them in our garden, I would observe their behaviors and traits. I fantasized why they would be in prison and how much they would probably hate us. We were free, they were surrounded by barbed wire.

The bulletproof windows with iron bars were supposedly meant to protect us from people with bad intentions. The bars would cast a ominous shadow on the dollhouse in the corner. We had a window that faced the street, giving us a view of the outside world. My sister and I often played a game in which we would lean into a windowsill and stick our hands out of the bars to scare passersby. We loved seeing the confusion in their eyes. What were two young girls doing in a prison? To be fair, it was a bit absurd. One day, my father, sister and I climbed up through the window on the attic to watch an airplane show from the roof. I felt like a fugitive and wondered about the prisoners who had stood here before me. Because I had heard the stories, I knew how some prisoners used their all to try to get to where I was standing, with a view of the other side of the wall. They climbed over and jumped on the walls that formed my home. I had a door, I didn’t have to risk tearing my skin on barbed wire.

I still get the question whether anything ever happened while I lived there, if there were any unsafe situations. People always want to hear the sensationalist stories, but there just isn’t much to tell. This doesn’t mean I never felt unsafe. Every time my father got a phone call about an escape or a suicide my heart would pound out of my chest. I was confronted with the dark sides of life in prison from a young age. Whenever I woke up at night and looked around my dark room, my thoughts went to what I would do if a prisoner ever got into our home. I knew we were protected and that the guards and the bars on the windows both did their jobs, but I couldn’t help imagining scenarios in which someone broke into our home or kidnapped me. Moments like those really made me feel that danger was just around the corner.

During the day my mind would ease and the prison would go back to the safe haven I knew. It was heart-wrenching for me when we moved after my twelfth birthday. I said goodbye to the wooden spiral staircase, which I always slid down butt-first; to the large halls and rooms that echoed our voices, to the garden where we had buried two rabbits, a few chickens and a dog. My sister and I were the last two children who lived in an official residency of a prison in Belgium. But suddenly, it was time to go. Soon, the entirety of the prison of Sint-Gillis will disappear. The walls and garden I know like the back of my hand are, luckily, protected property. But our house will be destroyed. When, in a few years, the prison will be emptied out entirely, the government in Brussels has a new plan for the area: a green neighborhood with plentiful gardens and meeting spots. My set of keys will never be needed again and what I once knew will be gone forever. But eventually, new princesses will run through the flowers and grass of our garden. And they, too, will be free.

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